Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott

Rupert Murdoch wants him. Gina Rinehart wants him. The miners want him. Big business wants him. Most of the media want him. But does the public want him? By September 8 we will know if the voters really did want him, whether they have been persuaded by the continual media promotion of Tony Abbott and his Coalition, and the incessant denigration of Kevin Rudd and Labor.

Abbott supporters insist that he is the one this country needs as its leader for the next three years.

But how many will reflect on what it will mean to this nation to have Tony Abbott, whom we now know so well, as its Prime Minister?

It takes little serious reflection to conclude that this nation does not deserve to have Abbott inflicted on it. Let me elaborate on why we ought to say no, no, no to Tony Abbott.

Contemplate an Abbott prime ministership, an Abbott government.

In my opinion, we can confidently expect Abbott to exhibit seemingly conflicting attributes: vengefulness and weakness.

The vengeful Abbott

Although this 55-year-old has been telling us recently that he 'has grown, developed and matured' since those long past days when he embraced quite different policies and exhibited very different attitudes and behaviour, how convinced are you? The old saying about the leopard’s spots applies.

Is this man, who in student days resented losing, any different now? Is this the man who kicked in a glass door when he narrowly lost in a University Senate election? Is this the man who punched the wall close to Barbara Ramjan when he lost an SRC election to her? It was an event he couldn’t at first ‘remember’, and then said ‘it never happened’, despite witnesses to the contrary. But we all know Abbott is a self-confessed liar. Is this the man who subsequently called Ramjan ‘chair-thing’ during her subsequent term rather than her preferred title ‘chair person’?  Is this the man who abused Nicola Roxon and insulted the dying Bernie Banton?

Is this the man who as recently as last week in the leaders’ debate asked about Rudd: “Does this guy ever shut up?” It was a small infraction, of course grasped eagerly by the media, but it portrayed brittleness, it signalled thinly disguised aggression lurking just under the surface, aggression that could erupt with little provocation, as it did during university days. Hardly a desirable attribute in a national leader who would need to liaise with world leaders! Greg Jericho says this: “This could be Abbott’s version of the Latham handshake, because it feeds into the perception that already exists that Abbott is a bit of a brute – someone who is liable to snap if pushed a bit too hard." Happy Antipodean was blunter: “But every now and then - like last night - Abbott slips up and lowers the tone of social discourse to a level with which he – a father of three daughters! – is happiest with the after-game fly-off-the-rails barbarism of the teenage schoolboy. He's a disgrace to Australia.” Abbott’s recent sexist remarks about some of his candidates for election fit with this image. Read YaThink’s satirical take on his remarks.

Is this the man who from the moment Julia Gillard won the support of a majority of Independents and formed Government in 2010, labeled her as an illegitimate prime minister and her Government illegitimate? Is this the man who used over sixty motions to suspend standing orders to delegitimize her, the man who demonized her daily with vile appellations: ‘liar’, ‘incompetent’, ‘worst prime minister leading the worst government in Australian political history’, who sneered at her at every opportunity despite her record legislative achievements?

Abbott’s approach to opposition has been consistently denigratory and viciously revengeful. Abbott cannot tolerate being a loser. Losing brings out the vengeful side of his nature, the nastiest aspects of his behaviour.

Look at his opposition to Labor bills. He has opposed measures that he has supported in the past (an ETS is one example), simply to enjoy the satisfaction opposition afforded. He is a disciple of Randolph Churchill, and slavishly follows his dictum: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”.

We would expect him to enjoy wreaking vengeance by repealing the carbon tax, the mining tax, and other Labor bills. Smashing what Labor has done is his pugilistic intent; demolition gives him satisfaction.

If he were to win, the bigger the majority the more intense and personal his vengeance would be. Voters need to know that vengeance is in his DNA. It would override any tendency to munificence that might emerge after a substantial victory. Remember his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull: “demolish the NBN”, an instruction Turnbull found a way to partly ignore. Demolition is Abbott’s preference.

Let’s look at some pretty obvious changes we could expect if Abbott prevails. Preston Towers has a nice account at AUSVOTES2013.

Tax changes
If he were to get a majority in both houses, we should expect not only the two major taxes to go, but also the carbon tax to be replaced by the underfunded, derisory Direct Action Plan, a plan way outside the carbon market system. There would also be a reversal of means testing of the private health insurance rebate, despite the Coalition agreeing to it earlier this year. Abandoned would be the recently mooted changes in the Fringe Benefits Tax in salary packages that enable the claiming of car expenses even when not used for business. Abbott would continue the rorting by the recipients, at taxpayers’ expense.

Industrial Relations
We would expect a revisiting of industrial relations despite Abbott’s ‘dead, buried and cremated’ reassurance, repeated again in the latest debate between the leaders. The pressure that commerce and industry is placing on Abbott would prove irresistible. Independent Australia sets out Abbott’s IR agenda in detail. Already he is talking about ‘flexible workplace reform’, and ‘moving the pendulum closer to the sensible middle’, which is code for the reintroduction of elements of WorkChoices by whatever more benign name Abbott invents. He would reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission with all its anti-union provisions. He would introduce union-bashing legislation to penalize dishonest union officials. In the event of his not having control of the Senate, some pay-offs might have to be made to the lesser parties and independents to implement his IR changes, which might include, for example, compromises to pro-lifer DLP John Madigan over the abortion issue.

Attacks on school funding
Although Abbott encouraged the Premiers to reject the Gonski reforms of school funding, when it became apparent that the people really did want the School Improvement Program implemented, and as more and more Premiers came on board, Abbott realized that to oppose it was such a vote loser that he endorsed it, claiming that he and Kevin Rudd were then on ‘a unity ticket’. Of course he has endorsed funding for only the first four years, whereas it is years five and six that are the most expensive. After all the talk of the program being a ‘Conski’, after Christopher Pyne’s insistence that the school funding system was not broken, after Abbott himself saying that if there was any funding inequity, it was the private schools that were missing out, we would expect Gonski to be revisited, subjected to yet another inquiry, and then watered down to reduce federal government support for public schools, thereby perpetuating the existing inequity. Abbott is even talking about encouraging public schools to become independent. Of course this would partly let him off the funding hook and satisfy his free market, user-pays ideology.

At the level of the family he has already announced the repeal of the ‘school kids bonus’, a move that would have its greatest effect on the poor in our community. He says he would use the money to fund in part his lavish PPL, one that so disproportionately favours the well off.

Attacks on the health system
We would expect an attack on elements of the health care system with GP super clinics and Medicare Locals his targets. We would wait with trepidation to see how he manages the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and in particular drugs that are used to assist abortion. And his push against the NBN would be reflected in the health sector too, as some of the planned innovations, such as home monitoring, would be curtailed or rendered impossible.

On nurses and aged care workers, Abbott wants to support them by ‘reducing red tape’, and ‘paperwork’. Sounds great, doesn’t it. But where does the reducing begin? As Clarencegirl asks: “Would it be daily observation charts, case notes, individual treatment plans, outcomes of multidisciplinary case management conferences, filling in accident/incident registers, or more simple tasks like placing patients/residents on lists for podiatry treatment and filling in weekly menus for those who can no longer do such tasks for themselves? Or would it be paperwork proving staffing levels, that all staff were suitably qualified for the positions they hold and that emergency medical equipment is tested/serviced regularly?”

All of these moves would be characterized as necessary cost-saving exercises to repair ‘the desperately bad financial situation Labor bequeathed the Coalition’.

Global warming
Lurking beneath an exterior that now acknowledges the reality of global warming, and the possibility that human activity contributes to it, is a denier. Why else would Abbott propose a scheme such as his Direct Action Plan? Malcolm Turnbull sees it as a bogus scheme that could easily be ditched when it all becomes too difficult, too costly, too logistically impossible, and ineffectual in lowering pollution to boot, as most economists and environmentalists predict. Abbott would cite the budget situation as his excuse for not proceeding, but the real reason would be that he doesn’t believe global warming is worth bothering about. After all, ‘it was hotter in Jesus’ time’. He keeps insisting, as does the sycophantic Greg Hunt, that there is no move to carbon trading elsewhere, which there is, and that the US is adopting ‘direct action’, which it isn’t. Being into short-termism, Abbott would let the planet look after itself, while he goes about doing the easier things, and Hunt would go on spinning a story that does not coincide with his own beliefs. As Tristan Edis writes: “Last week the Climate Institute called Hunt’s bluff, releasing a study examining the economics of Hunt’s Direct Action fund. In spite of its generous assumptions in Hunt’s favour, the study concluded Direct Action was underfunded by at least $4 billion to achieve the minimum Coalition emission reduction target.”

One area in which Malcolm Turnbull excels is obfuscation. He is not only incapable of making complex telecommunications issues simple enough for the public to comprehend, he is even less capable when he is trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. When his heart is not in it, he stammers and stumbles and becomes incomprehensible. Again and again he has tried to represent his NBN-Lite as superior on the grounds that it would cost less and would roll out faster. But that advantage comes at the expense of quality. The Coalition scheme would give Australia a second rate NBN, which would leave business and agriculture less competitive internationally, and would make home health care, aged care and remote consultations much more difficult, if not impossible. But both Turnbull and Abbott insist that it would be ‘good enough’ for most users, and that the aging copper he would use for the last kilometre is capable of the speeds he is promising, which it isn’t. If it’s OK for Abbott’s daughters to download movies, and for him to send emails, I suppose that would have to do!

Talking about a Google+hangout in which Turnbull participated last week, Sortius is a Geek reports that Turnbull’s “…answers were dripped in the same arrogant dismissive tone that we’ve become accustomed to when Turnbull is interviewed or debated.” And “This was a deliberate attempt to derail any concerns over his plan being short sighted, and essentially a waste of money.”

The Coalition’s NBN-Lite costings are shrouded in mystery. Renai LeMay reported this week: “Delimiter requested a formal position from Turnbull’s spokesperson last week about whether the Shadow Communications Minister would submit the Coalition’s NBN policy to the Treasury, but has not yet received a direct answer on the issue.”

For an excellent appraisal of Labor’s NBN read Michael Taylor’s post on The Australian Independent Media Network, which concludes: “The future is an exciting place and the technological possibilities seem endless. But life and society will increasingly revolve around fast, ubiquitous, and always-on network connectivity. Labor’s NBN sets Australia up to be a part of this, and potentially to be a leading developer of the technologies that will shape the lives of the next generations.” Abbott cannot stomach Labor’s plan being the best.

After his initial instruction to Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’, Abbott would want to get as close as he could to that destructive approach with his NBN-Lite. And he certainly wouldn’t want to upset his idol, Rupert Murdoch. Be certain that he would move his NBN-Lite as close as he could to Murdoch’s requirements.

Asylum seeker policy
Little needs to said about this, except that Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would drag the Coalition even deeper into the morass in which this issue wallows. They would seek to look more aggressive than the Government, would add more and more disincentives to their already punitive policy, as we have seen this week, and the dog whistling would heighten.

Just when it seemed they couldn’t possibly become more hairy-chested, they are now planning to spend millions ‘buying back the fishing boats’, presumably outbidding the people smugglers. As there are estimated to be three quarters of a million fishing boats in Indonesia, Morrison would be pretty busy, and would needs lots of money. If he were to buy them all, who would do the fishing? Crazy. Greg Jericho describes just how crazy.

Fiscal responsibility
Notwithstanding all the Coalition hype about Government debt and deficit, and how fiscal management would be so much better under the Coalition, the approach of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann to fiscal responsibility gives voters no confidence that the Coalition could and would do what it says it will. They often misrepresent the facts, distort the evidence, and cherry pick the data to push their point of view, and so far we have seen little of their policy costings, which they will hide until the last week of the election, when thorough critique will be impossible. They plan simply to bluff their way through. At his campaign launch today, Abbott set out an extended timeframe for a $4 billion surplus: the end of his first term! And a budget surplus of one per cent of GDP a decade hence! He’s retreating fast.

Ross Gittins insists that the Coalition has an obligation to show how it will pay for its election promises. He goes on to outline “the unworthy reasons for avoiding any firm commitment on when an Abbott government would get the budget back to surplus. I can think of three. Because it's a safe bet the Coalition parties intend to put their debt-and-deficit rhetoric on the back burner as soon as they're back in power and the fear campaign has served its purpose. Because, even in government, Tony Abbott is likely to prove an incorrigible populist with little interest in or sympathy for the precepts of rational economics. As is clear from the way he keeps departing from the agreed line in this campaign, Hockey, Arthur Sinodinos and Malcolm Turnbull would have an unending struggle trying to keep the boss up to the mark." Gittins concludes: “…because an Abbott government would have handicapped itself so badly on the tax side of the budget that fiscal responsibility would require a degree of continuing restraint on the spending side of which no flesh-and-blood government is capable.”

If an example of this is needed, just think about the fiscal contortions that have beset the funding of Abbott’s ‘signature policy’, his Paid Parental Leave scheme, which economists and many in his party, now including Nick Minchin, believe is not capable of being responsibly implemented.

We could expect no fiscal magic from Abbott, Hockey, and Co, and certainly no move that would up the ante on the wealthy. In contrast, we can see already their preparedness to move against the underprivileged, the workers, and the indigent. They have said they would kill the School Kids Bonus and the low income tax offset, reduce the tax free ceiling thereby disadvantaging the poorest, reverse the changes to the means tested private health insurance rebate, which would advantage the wealthy, and defer for two years the moving of superannuation from nine to twelve percent. And so the attack on the less-well-off would continue. Expect more, as Abbott believes these are Labor voters anyway.

I could go on and on describing what to expect should Abbott become PM, what vengeance to anticipate, but what I have described will have to suffice.

What is more disconcerting though than Abbott’s vengefulness is his weakness, weakness that would render him unable to resist the requests, the demands of his wealthy and influential sponsors.

Abbott the weak man

The ones who would call the shots, who would shout the orders to which Abbott would jump, are Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart. Look at how obsequious Abbott is in the presence of these wealthy moguls.

Murdoch would want the threat to his Foxtel empire from the NBN neutralized. He would want no restrictions to his precious ‘freedom of the press’, which is code for him being able to say and print whatever he likes to support his commercial interests and his ideological preferences. Abbott would meekly comply; Murdoch would never see Abbott’s hairy chest. He would never see Abbott the boxer ready to flatten his adversary, or Abbott the student threatening his opponents.

Rinehart would want every concession she could wrench from Abbott, and would get it. He would make it easier for her to develop her mines, easier for her to avoid taxes that rightfully should support the common good. He would repeal the mining tax. He would support workers on 457 visas to build her mines. He would kiss her hand and give her what she demands, such as her plan for development of the North. The bravado Abbott shows against helpless asylum seekers would never be directed towards her; she is too prepossessing, too powerful, too determined to get her own way, too used to winning.

Of course, lesser lights such as Andrew Forrest would soon have his arm around Abbott seducing him to support Twiggy’s enterprises. Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council of Australia would know that Abbott would jump if he clicks his fingers – he wouldn’t have to spend another $22 million on ads to get his way.

Peter Anderson of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry would have Abbott’s ear, urging him to reduce taxes, make the workplace more flexible, lessen red and green tape, minimize regulation, reduce company tax, and give business lots of incentives. Abbott would present an open door to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group.

Abbott is a weak man who would not be able to resist the demands of powerful business and industry leaders. He would go wobbly at the knees and comply. He hasn’t got the ticker to stand firm.

Abbott has never acknowledged the reality of the global financial crisis and its ongoing sequelae; he has never acknowledged the ever-changing global economic circumstances and how Australia must adapt to them, even in his campaign launch today. It’s as if these situations never existed. Instead of giving voters a concrete ‘narrative’, the Holy Grail political journalists demanded of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, all he gave us today were his aspirations, some now stretched out over a decade. There were few concrete plans to achieve them, and no vision of what he wanted for this nation ten years from now. It’s so easy to mouth motherhood statements such his desire for ‘a stronger economy’, ‘more jobs’, ‘lower taxes’, ‘budget surpluses’, ‘better hospitals and schools’, and so on, but without concrete plans, they are just fine-sounding words, empty of substance. Why the paltry narrative? Is it because he awaits directives from the wealthy and the powerful? He creative slate looks blank, waiting as it seems to be for his mentors to write their narrative.

Perhaps even more sinisterly, Abbott would be subject to the pressure of his mentor, Cardinal George Pell. With his Catholic upbringing, with his Jesuit education so deeply entrenched in his psyche, he would weakly submit to the power of his Church, to the influence of his mentor. He would avoid policies that run counter to his Church’s dogma, as we are seeing manifest in his continuing unwillingness to allow a conscience vote in the Coalition on the matter of gay marriage. He would not be able to resist lobbying against abortion by his Church and the pro-lifers.

Should he become PM, this weakness of character would be even more detrimental to good governance, more dangerous to equity and fairness than the vengefulness that he would parade against the weak, against those who have no defence. The wealthy and powerful would prevail. Abbott, the weak man, would not resist.

Be afraid of an Abbott prime ministership, very afraid.

Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott.

Should you wish to ‘disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The Great Debate Debacle

Has anyone had a good word to say about the Great Debate last Sunday? What was it all about? What was the intent of the organizers?

Was it to provide entertainment for the viewers of the channels involved?
Was it to try out some new opinion-counting gadgetry?
Was it to stage a head-to-head contest to pick a winner?
Was it to see who was the best debater?
Was it to satisfy the debating elite by following their preferred format?
Was it to see who had the sharpest repartee, the best rejoinder?
Was it to see who exhibited the coolest demeanour, the highest confidence?
Was it to look for stumbles, inept utterances, embarrassing gaffes, headline makers?
Was it to make the involved journalists look erudite, sharp, and perceptive?
Was it to give fodder for the TV and radio news, and the next day’s papers?

I suspect it was all of the above.

Yet it turned out to be paltry entertainment and showed lamentable inconsistency between counting gadgets, with several picking Kevin Rudd a comfortable winner, while another recorded the striking reverse. It never assessed debating attributes and oral skills directly, and failed to satisfy the debating pundits. It only obliquely addressed demeanour and confidence and found a few stumbles, Rudd’s use of notes being the one most mentioned. It did show though how out of touch and inept the journalists were at organizing and conducting such an event. It certainly did provide fodder for lots of news and opinion writing, most of it inconsequential or uninformed. Overall though, the Great Debate was a debacle.

Was it to help voters decide who was the most suitable leader to be the next PM?
Was it to enlighten voters about the salient issues of the election?
Was it to tell voters about the vision the leaders have for the nation?
Was it to inform voters about how the leaders viewed the challenges ahead?
Was it to help voters decide who had the best policies to cope with them?
Was it to help voters decide who had the most accurate costings?
Was it to help voters feel confident that at least one of the leaders had what it takes to lead the nation effectively, efficiently, and wisely for the next triennium?

In my view, it was none of the above. I doubt if these aims entered into the minds of the organizers. If they did, if the organizers were hoping to elucidate these matters, the ‘debate’ was an abject failure.

Yet, we ought not to be surprised. If one were hoping to address these issues, why would the organizers and interrogators be drawn from a decaying and incompetent Fourth Estate that has shown itself to be remote from mainstream Australians, trapped in the Canberra echo-chamber where groupthink abounds and reverberations deafen, where a foreign mogul issues instructions from on high about what he wants and how his journalists shall get it for him?

If we have a repeat of the Great Debate, the concept of debates between leaders at election time will atrophy and die. The format was wrong, the organizers were unsuitable, the interrogators inappropriate, and it was not even enjoyable entertainment.

It’s easy to be critical. It’s not so easy to be innovative, to be constructive. What follows is an attempt to outline a foundation for a debate that has a chance of being more informative for voters. I recognize that there may be resistance from one or more of the political parties to any attempt to give voters sound evidence on which to base their voting decisions. I suspect that for both major parties the crucial tasks are as follows:

Avoid any error that diminishes the party’s prestige or the leader’s status.
Avoid saying anything that will be fodder for the gaffe-hungry Fourth Estate.
Avoid committing to anything that is contrary to party policy.
Avoid committing to anything that might come back to haunt the party.
Avoid promises or suggestions that might turn out to be inappropriate, unattainable, or politically unwise.
Avoid giving figures or costings unless they are unquestionably correct.
Never miss an opportunity to criticize the opponent.
Never miss an opportunity to make a hypercritical comment, or utter a well-tried slogan.
Put down and embarrass the opponent at every opportunity.
Impugn the opponent’s character, motives and intent.
Repeat criticisms no matter how well worn, no matter how out-of-date.
Use sarcasm liberally. Demean at every opportunity.
Use distortions of the truth ‘when it is safe to do so’.
Insist that no matter how poorly the debate has gone for you, you won.
Be ready to remind the media of any gaffes, misstatements, inaccuracies, or lies your opponent perpetrated during the debate.

Given this formidable list of negative tasks that both sides always have in mind, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that a rational and productive debate between leaders is simply not possible to arrange. Anyway let’s try.

What I want to know before voting can be summarized as follows:

What vision do the leaders have for this nation for the next three years, and the next decade?
Put another way, what sort of nation would they wish to see in three and ten years?
Given that Australia exists in a global economy where what is happening elsewhere impinges comprehensively on our economy, especially what is happening in China, India, Japan, United States, Europe, the developing economies in our region, and in South America, what are the economic challenges facing the nation now, and likely to be in the next decade?
How do the leaders plan to address these challenges, one by one?
Do the leaders seek to bring the Budget back into balance?
If so, when do they expect they might be able to do this?
How do they plan to do this?
What moves do they plan to improve revenue and reduce expenditure to achieve this?
How do they plan to correct the longstanding structural defects in the Budget that so adversely affect it now?
How do they plan to reduce debt, over what period, and in what circumstances?
What are the attributes for the economy for which each leader is striving?
In particular, what are the desirable levels of growth, unemployment, participation, productivity, debt to GDP ratio, terms of trade, rating agency ratings, consumer and business confidence, inflation, RBA cash rates, interest rates, investment, business activity (retail, manufacturing, mining, agricultural), housing starts, housing affordability, business starts and defaults, and infrastructure development?
What are their specific policies to develop and to grow the economy?
What are their specific policies to create jobs?
Specifically, what are their policies to support car manufacturing?
Specifically, what are their policies to support small business?
What policies do they have in other portfolio areas that are designed to support the economy?
What is their tax policy?
What changes to tax policy are they advocating? Is a change to the GST an option?
How might these be brought about?
What are their priorities for expenditure?
Specifically, what emphasis do they propose to give to major areas of expenditure: on health, aged care and disability; education; welfare and transfer payments; immigration; defence; diplomatic activity and overseas aid; and the public service?
Will all policies and their cost be made available well before Election Day?

The questions above are related to the economy. But how many of these have been addressed in the campaign and in the Great Debate?

As Ben Eltham pointed out: “All in all, we’re not hearing a lot of detail from our politicians about their economic policies. Instead, the ongoing fascination with the deficit as a proxy for economic management continues to distract from the bigger picture. In a tougher and more substantial media environment, this lack of detail would be called out, as Colebatch does today on Opposition costings. But on the whole, the media continues to obsess over trivia, like Kevin Rudd’s notes in Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, or Tony Abbott’s unfortunate turn of phrase about suppositories.”

Ross Gittins says: “The two leaders' aim in the debate was the same as their aim in this campaign: to make it to election day while giving as few commitments as possible about what they'll do in the next three years.” Later he opines: “In modern campaigning, tough issues aren't debated, they're closed off.”

We are likely to reach Election Day with very few answers to these economic questions. At least Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and later Kevin Rudd, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong addressed, and clearly spelt out the economic challenges facing this nation in the decade ahead. Everyone ought to know them by now.

In contrast, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann have never done so. Indeed, to a man they have denied the dire global economic situation, as if it never existed, as if it did not exist now. Instead, they have tried to sheet home to the Government responsibility for the budgetary problems it faces as a result of falling revenue. It’s all the Government’s fault according to them, and has nothing to do with the slowdown in the economy of China and its diminishing need for resources, nothing to do with the fall in the world prices for commodities, nothing to do with the recession in Europe or the sluggish economy in the US, nothing to do with the high Australian dollar. It’s all Labor’s mismanagement that has caused the problem. And with a compliant, unquestioning Fourth Estate, there is almost no one to challenge the Coalition’s disingenuousness, deception and outright lies. They are spread far and wide by the Murdoch press, particularly through its tabloid headlines, with Fairfax, and even the ABC echoing them. The voices of the few sensible and balanced commentators, such a Ross Gittins, Peter Martin, Stephen Koukoulas, and Laura Tingle, are drowned out by the cacophony of adverse comment streaming daily from the anti-Labor media.

Labor has attempted via several formal addresses by Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Chris Bowen to spell out how it plans to counter the adverse global economic environment in which Australia is immersed, and manage the transition of our economy from a resource-based one to a more diversified one that focuses on manufacturing, service provision and agriculture. In contrast, all we have heard from the Coalition is a bunch of motherhood statements, a plethora of oft-repeated slogans, and precious little substance.

If you think that is unfair comment, take a look through the Coalition’s formal statements in its booklet: Our Plan Real Solutions for All Australians, the one that Abbott and his team clutch to their chest during pressers, always cover side out. It’s quite nicely laid out, and easy to follow. Download the PDF file and scroll through the content. At first there is some statements about Delivering a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia. Then scroll to page 28 and read the section headed: Building a Five pillar economy and unleashing Australia’s potential.

Some of you may nod in approval because there are few motherhood aspirations there that could reasonably be challenged, but look for the detail about HOW these aspirations are to be accomplished. Don’t expect too much. Most of it you will have heard before. It is fine sounding, but superficial. This is what Ben Eltham had to say in New Matilda: “The Coalition has a plan to build a “five-pillar economy”, but details on this pentagonal wonder are hard to find. How will the Coalition drive growth in one of those five pillars, education and research? Apparently, according to the Coalition’s “Our Plan” brochure, “by removing the shackles and burdens holding the industry back and by making the industry more productive and globally competitive.” Clearly, he is left underwhelmed by detail in the Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’.

This is what a debate between leaders ought to be about – teasing out the aspirations for the economy and wrapping them in the detail of how the aspirations will be achieved. The leaders ought not to be able to get away with platitudinous targets; it is the how that transforms laudable goals into actual achievements. That’s what we need to know. A good moderator ought to be able to extract that information, if indeed the leader is in possession of it. Perhaps the Chris Bowen/Joe Hockey encounter on Q&A on Monday night will give us what we want and need. It will be a forum that we can contrast with the forum of last Sunday’s debate.

So far, I have dealt with but one of the many areas of government that need appraisal – the economy, clearly the most important of all to the electorate. There are many others though – too many to deal with here. Health, education, industrial relations, immigration, and global warming spring to mind. These too need to be addressed.

It is not just the content of the debates that need attention, it is the format.

The Sunday night format was awful. It was inappropriate on almost every count. First, I believe that if there is to be a journalist involved at all, moderator is the only role that might be appropriate. Journalists should not formulate the questions, or ask them. They should not presume to know the questions voters want answered.

For my part, I would prefer questions to be formulated by a panel familiar with the subject matter, and based on questions submitted by the voters. Well before the debate, the public should be invited to post questions on a website dedicated to the debate. These would then be aggregated into groups, and questions refined from them. This would not be difficult or time consuming.

The debate is not for the purpose of tripping up the leaders, or even testing their capacity to remember the details of their policies. It is not an exam. So why not send them the questions a few days in advance to give them the chance to prepare full, yet concise answers. We want to know what the policies really are, not how well the leaders remember them or even how well they articulate them in an off-the-cuff answer, certainly not how well they spin an answer off the top of their head.

A competent moderator should present the questions, which should also be displayed boldly on a screen behind the leaders, so they are visible to viewers throughout the answers. Each leader is given the same time to respond, and should be permitted to use visual aids such as graphs and graphics. The eye combined with the ear is better than the ear alone. The moderator should have the right to interrupt if the speaker is wandering off topic or avoiding the question, if he makes a contentious or contestable statement, if he reverts to motherhood statements or slogans, and if he spends too long criticising his opponent.

There should be opportunities for each leader to challenge the other’s assertions and ask for evidence.

Each debate should be confined to just one major topic, or a small group of related topics, such as, for example, health, aged care and disability. Too many topics in the one debate foster superficiality, as we saw during the first debate.

I do not believe community forums are suitable for such a debate between leaders. Those I have witnessed have been characterized by partisan questioning by audience ‘plants’, and stereotypical answers. Nor do I think the Q&A format, where the audience pose the questions, is suitable. While some Q&A sessions have been laudable (and entertaining), for a debate where in-depth probing of the leaders is crucial, this format is unlikely to achieve what voters need. And we certainly don’t want to be entertained. We want to be informed. The format for the Bowen/Hockey encounter on Q&A will be worthy of note. In particular, I will be looking to see how Tony Jones garners the questions, how he keeps the speakers on topic, the extent to which he interrupts, how appropriate those interruptions are, and how well the speakers inform the viewers about their policies and their costings.

In summary, I believe the best arrangement for these debates would be to divide the major issues into four or five main topics, invite the public to post online the questions they want addressed, have a panel of professionals in the subject refine the questions, send them to the speakers beforehand, have an accomplished moderator pose them and then monitor the leaders’ contributions, allowing interaction between them. There ought to be an hour-long debate on each major topic, or group of topics. I would favour having ministers and shadow ministers involved as well as the leaders. That would somewhat tone down the presidential tenor that now overwhelms this election campaign.

We need more debates, better information, more transparency, deeper insight, more honesty.

There it is folks. It may be pie in the sky.

What do you think?

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Partisan economics

If the election is to be decided on who are the best managers of the economy, which the polls tell us is at the top of the electorate's concerns, how on earth are voters supposed to make that decision? As Edgar R Fielder said: Ask five economists and you'll get five different answers - six if one went to Harvard.

This is just what we are seeing day after day from economists as they comment on the pronouncements of politicians and announcements on economic policy.

It is unsurprising that politicians put their own spin on the same situation. Take the RBA’s lowering of the cash rate to 2.5% this week. Chris Bowen and Kevin Rudd pointed out that this would mean a saving of $45 on the monthly repayment of the average $300,000 home loan – good news for homebuyers – and it would be good too for small businesses seeking loans. On the other hand, Joe Hockey was out there preemptively knocking the rise before it was announced, and after the announcement, adamant that the lowering of interest rates was a sign that the economy was weak and weakening, and of course that was because the Government was mismanaging the economy.

How then do economists, all grappling with the same factual evidence, rate this change to the cash rate? If you thought the evidence would speak for itself, and that it would lead to the same assessment, you would have been disappointed.

Around four years ago, at the time the Government was applying its stimulus package, I wrote this in What value are economists to our society?One of my longstanding gripes has been about the influence on economics writers of their preferred economic model. Henry Ergas’ reference in the Current Account Blog to his beloved Friedman in response to the upbeat GDP that just about everyone else attributed to the stimulus packages, is a case in point. I wrote about this on TPS in The problem with economists back in February 2009. Referring to the contemporary debate about when and how the stimulus should be withdrawn now that the economy seemed to be recovering, Crikey’s Bernard Keane said: “There are no - no - economists or business groups who think it is time for the stimulus to be wound back, except for those on the far right or Liberal shills such as Henry Ergas, who opposed the stimulus package in the first place.”

“Another grumble is the way journalists allow their political leanings to influence what ought to be an objective analysis of the undeniable facts. Michael Stutchbury of The Australian [now of The Australian Financial Review] is an example. Bernard Keane said in Crikey: “After the March quarter figures, anti-Labor commentators like Michael Stutchbury tried to argue that the modest growth was a consequence of exports only, ignoring the fact that the stimulus packages had prevented domestic demand from collapsing the same way it had in the US, the UK and other developed economies. Today’s figures blow the Stutchbury argument clean out of the water, with exports a trivial contributor to the overall growth figure – although like the Coalition, Stutchbury has now switched to urging that the stimulus has been too successful and needs to be wound back.”

“With commentators of the likes of Ergas and Stutchbury, what can readers who lack a profound knowledge of economics, really believe? As Keane put it in a piece on Crikey, ‘Nothing more stimulating than press gallery groupthink’: “The ‘debate’ over whether the Government should pull back on the stimulus package is a classic case of a press gallery trying to frame a real-world issue into a narrow, political framework that suits its own reporting purposes. It is a collective illusion being foisted on the mainstream media’s ever-smaller audiences by journalists and commentators unable or unwilling to see outside the gallery prism of winners and losers and political personalities.”

This past week we saw the same phenomenon – economists using their preferred model of economics to argue their case, and worse still, allowing their political bias to colour their assessments.

On the ABC’s The World Today on August 7, Eleanor Hall interviewed economists Stephen Koukoulas and Henry Ergas. Stephen Koukoulas is the Managing Director of Market Economics. He has been chief economist for two global banks and was the senior economic advisor to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a year after the last election, having moved there from a senior role in the Commonwealth Treasury. Henry Ergas is a professor of Infrastructure Economics and senior economic adviser at Deloitte Access Economics. He was an economist at the OECD in Paris and on returning to Australia in the mid-1990s, he chaired several Howard government inquiries on regulatory and competition issues and more recently advised the Coalition on tax reform.

Hall introduced the discussion with: “So just how responsible is the Coalition's $2.5 billion a year promise to cut company taxes at a time when the Reserve Bank of Australia has now cut interest rates to their lowest level in half a century?

“While Labor is describing yesterday's RBA board decision as a gift to struggling households – and to the Government in the middle of an election campaign – the Coalition says it's more evidence of Labor's mismanagement of the economy.

“So is the Australian economy in dire straits, is the budget in crisis and is Australia's triple-A credit rating under threat?”

The background of these economists gives an inkling of what their responses might be to Hall’s first question: “The Reserve Bank Board has now cut the cash rate to its lowest level in half a century, below what Kevin Rudd described, when he was last Prime Minister, as an emergency level.

“First to you Stephen Koukoulas? Is Australia's economy now in a state of emergency?

Note Koukoulas’ adamant response:

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: "It's nowhere near it. It's absurd to think that it is the case. We're growing at about 2.5 per cent. The unemployment rate is 5.7 per cent. Inflation's nice and low. And we're looking at the forward indicators, things like housing, it's clearly on something of an upswing. And of course with the lower dollar we're getting an export boost.

“So look, the low interest rates are there because inflation is very low because we're part of a global economy where inflation is low and decelerating so that's given the Reserve Bank scope to move interest rates lower.

“The difference between now and back in 2009 when we did have an emergency, is that fiscal policy is now being tightened quite aggressively whereas at the time we had a very, very aggressive stimulus measure, which moved fiscal policy to a very accommodative phase.”

ELEANOR HALL: “So was yesterday's rate cut necessary?

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Oh yes it was necessary because we had the inflation numbers just a couple of weeks ago that confirmed inflation was in the bottom part of the RBA target range.

“We do know that the unemployment rate is drifting a little bit higher and I think we just need that final little bit of an impetus to make sure that the recovery that seems to be underway gets some traction and that when we get to 2014 the economy's back at trend.”

So Koukoulas, Ex-Treasury, who has advised Labor, has a positive view about the rate cut. Now let’s see what Henry Ergas says. He regularly writes anti-Labor articles in The Australian.

ELEANOR HALL: “So Henry Ergas, what's your sense of the state of the economy? Would you describe these as emergency-level interest rates?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well they're certainly very low interest rates. I think the important fact is that despite recovery in the US, the international outlook is highly uncertain with uncertainty about China and where the best that one can say for Europe is that perhaps it's bottoming out. And that, together with increases in global supply, means that we've had a reduction in commodity prices and a fall in the terms of trade and that in turn is reflected in what seems to be the end of the investment phase of the resource boom.

“And as that plays itself out domestic growth has flowed below the levels that it's capable of achieving and looks likely to remain below those levels for a little while with unemployment rising. And so in that situation it was obviously sensible for the Reserve Bank to try to stimulate the economy a bit through this interest rate cut.”

Note how he rates the economy as slowing and in need of the stimulatory effect of an interest rate cut. Hall gently tries to pin him down:

ELEANOR HALL: “Henry Ergas, to try and understand the politics of this a little bit, are low interest rates a sign of good economic management, as the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said in 2004, or of government mismanagement as he's saying now?”

Note how Ergas digs himself out of this more pointed question.

HENRY ERGAS: “Well they can be, in a way they can be both right. You can have low interest rates because you've gotten everything working properly, you have low inflation, growth is strong, but the economy has scope to continue to grow at those levels, or grow even a bit more rapidly without inflation picking up.

“In that context, there's clearly scope for low interest rates. Equally, low interest rates can be a response to a situation where the economy is growing by significantly less than potential. And perhaps where growth rates are looking uncertain and in that context a move to lower growth rates, to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy can be an appropriate response to weaker economic performance.”

These are cleverly spoken words that align him with the Hockey view. Hall tries again to pin him down.

ELEANOR HALL: “So is the Coalition right when it says this low interest rate is because Labor has mismanaged the economy?”

HENRY ERGAS: “I think the current low interest rates reflect a growth outlook that is not as strong as it should be. And an important factor in that growth outlook is obviously the uncertainty about both fiscal policy and important areas of structural policy which may be having the effect of both reducing the economy's potential growth rate and preventing it from achieving even that potential in the immediate term.”

Ergas is edging even closer to the Hockey view. Note how he points the finger at “…uncertainty about both fiscal policy and important areas of structural policy…," clearly impugning Labor. Note too how he completely fails to mention the slowing global economy, which is impinging on our economy.

So Hall turns to Koukoulas with a different question that explores this reality:

ELEANOR HALL: “Stephen Koukoulas, to what extent does the Government need to take responsibility for the weakening economy?”

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Not a lot. I think the issues, when we look at why the economy has cooled off over the past six to nine months, we've got an unexpected cooling in China where growth has slowed from above 8.5 per cent to around about 7 per cent on the latest forecasts. And that's dragged the terms of trade down as we saw in the Government's update on Friday. So we've got this negative shock that's coming from our biggest trading partner and a fall in commodity prices.

“We've also got this scenario that I mentioned before that global inflation is very low and that translates into a more broadly based fall in commodity prices. So there are areas that are outside the control of the Government. And in fact one of the issues that we saw from the Government is that it's allowing the automatic stabiliser in the budget to work, which has caused the budget deficit to be a little bit bigger in the current financial year 13-14.

“And that's actually going to be providing a little bit of extra stimulus to the economy as well. So we've got fiscal policy moving to a more neutral to a slightly stimulatory stance. We certainly have monetary policy at very stimulatory levels which will be definitely the groundwork for the economy to pick up over the course of the next 12 months.”

Clearly, Koukoulas points his finger at: “…areas that are outside the control of the Government…" to explain our current situation, and sees a favourable future when he points to: “…monetary policy [being] at very stimulatory levels which will be definitely the groundwork for the economy to pick up over the course of the next 12 months”, a positive outlook.

These excerpts illustrate partisan economics. The political leanings of the two economists influence their ‘opinions’. The ‘facts’ are interpreted in quite different ways: Stephen Koukoulas presents all the facts and draws a conclusion positive for the Government; Henry Ergas cherry-picks the facts that suit his partisan views and draws negative conclusions that align with Coalition viewpoints. Whom do we believe?

George Bernard Shaw said: “If all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion.” This piece of dialogue illustrates that well.

Hall then addressed the other burning question of the day – Tony Abbott’s promise of a 1.5% reduction in Company Tax to 28.5%.

ELEANOR HALL: “Well let's look at the Coalition's big spending promise today. To you Henry Ergas - three days ago Mr Abbott said he would deliver company tax cuts "when affordable". Today he promised to deliver them in 2015. Is this $2.5 billion a year tax cut affordable and responsible?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well I believe it's ultimately affordable. What it really depends on is getting the fiscal policy settings right and the problem is that over recent years what we've seen and had is a government that has a deficit when times are good, has a deficit when times are extraordinarily good, and now has a deficit when it says times are not bad, but not as good as one would like.

“So it seems that under all circumstances, we are running a deficit. And clearly were that to continue, then tax cuts would not be feasible. But if we can get the overall settings of fiscal policy right and return to a situation where we take fiscal rules seriously and try to achieve structural budget surpluses over successive cycles, then cutting the corporate tax rate makes very good sense because as the Henry Review emphasised, the company tax rates are relatively highly distorting and they both reduce our growth potential and reduce Australian living standards in the long term.”

ELEANOR HALL: “You mentioned the former treasury secretary Ken Henry there. Yesterday he said that whoever wins on September the 7th will have to cut spending or raise taxes or both to deal with the deficit problem, and yet here we've got the Coalition with a big spending tax cut. Do you think that is a problem? Do you agree with Ken Henry?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well clearly the situation is that if we are to return to a sustainable fiscal position, then that will require some tough choices. And those tough choices have to be in the first instance, choices about spending.

“The reality is that if you look at the period from 2007-8 to the present, revenues have risen very sharply. I mean, revenues have increased over that period by almost $80 billion. And this is the source of the deficit. The problem is that payments have increased by close to $130 billion...and so what you need to do is look at that and say how much of that spending really does pass a sensible cost benefit test? If you don't do that you will never bring a fiscal situation under control.”

Ergas sheets home the blame to Labor’s spending. He points out, as do Hockey and Abbott, that revenue is rising, but fails to acknowledge that it is not rising as rapidly as projected because of the global economic situation, leaving a large shortfall.

Hall then tackles the elephant in the room – the GST.

ELEANOR HALL: “And we've just heard both sides emphatically rule out an increase to the GST. Of course that's expected during an election campaign, but Stephen Koukoulas from an economic point of view, should they be looking at increasing their Goods and Services Tax rate?

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Well they need to do something on the revenue and I think Henry [Ergas] just got an error there – the tax receipts have actually fallen by around about 2 to 2.5 per cent of GDP. We've got a very, very low tax take at the moment from the Government which is causing the fiscal concerns, that the spending to GDP ratios did increase obviously during the depths of the financial crisis but have now sort of scaled back to roughly the average of the last 30 or 40 years where the tax to GDP ratios are only in around about 21, 22 per cent. Where as recently as 2003,4,5 they were about 24 per cent of GDP.

“So…if there is a problem, and I don't think there is one,…to the extent that we need to balance the budget over the cycle it's got to be the revenue side that does it. And with an income tax cut sort of throwing away a couple of billion dollars a year, while of course we'd all love to have lower income and company tax rates, it is a desirable medium term objective? But at the moment when we've got perhaps a higher priority of balancing the budget it seems to be perhaps the wrong time to be talking about it or implementing it." 

ELEANOR HALL: “Well there's a lot more to talk about on the economy. But we'll have to wrap it there.”

So there it is. We have two economists looking at the same data set, yet seeing causes and effects quite differently. Economists have a strong tendency to see the facts through the prism of their preferred model of economics. Some, such as Henry Ergas in this instance, see the facts through the optics of their partisan biases, and choose those that suit their argument. This is ‘Partisan economics’ writ large.

How can the average voter decide who is telling the truth most accurately? Economists would argue that what we are seeing is simply different points of view. But it’s not just that. What we are seeing is economists trying to persuade readers to their own viewpoint, instead of doing what they ought to do: present the facts and then argue the case for this interpretation or that, and only then draw a rational conclusion. In the dialogue above, one came close, the other didn’t.

Are such debates, despite their potential, worth the effort? If all we get is another dose of political spin, and from those who are supposed to be balanced, the answer sadly is NO.

Ross Gittins sums up the problem for economists: “Business economists long ago learnt to keep their heads down and their lips buttoned during [election] campaigns, for fear something they say is taken up by one side, prompting the other side to blacken their name. Too many people's careers have become collateral damage in the political fighting.”

They could avoid that outcome if they simply gave a balanced exposition, but that seems beyond most.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’: it will be emailed to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Doug Cameron, Kim Carr, Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Ed Husic, Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Leigh, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Arthur Sinodinos, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The quickening disintegration of Tony Abbott

It shows in his face. Taut, tense, worried, he looks like a man under great pressure when he fronts for impromptu pressers. His sycophants, seldom smiling, occasionally furtively smirking, nod behind him in unspoken approval. He often has Margie at hand to prop him up. He speaks haltingly, his gravelly voice grinding out his ‘message for the day’ dutifully learned at the morning briefing from his minders.

He was not looking good when I wrote The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition in November 2012. Nine long months later, his disintegration is noticeably worse.

Reasons abound for his decline. In the latter months of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership with poll after poll running persistently and decisively against her, his confidence of an electoral triumph on September 14 was running sky high. Then, on June 20, what he had been plumping for since 2010 occurred abruptly – the political demise of his bête noir Julia Gillard. He must have thought about this possibility, but when it arrived at the eleventh parliamentary hour, out of what he thought was a clear run to the election, he seemed surprised, looked flat-footed, and reacted lamely. It had all looked so easy, but suddenly he was facing a resurgent Kevin Rudd, who obviously had been planning his prime ministerial resurrection for many months, planning how to counter this slogan-driven man.

All Tony Abbott’s plans for countering Julia Gillard had to be discarded and new ones to counter Kevin Rudd rapidly developed. Predictably, he flicked the switch to extreme negative, talked about Rudd being a dud, brought out from storage the nasty comments Rudd’s colleagues had made about him eighteen months before, and ran some ‘lemon’ ads along these lines. But their frequency soon dropped as Rudd’s reappearance evoked an enthusiastic reaction from the electorate. Many out there felt he had been very badly treated when he was rejected and replaced in 2010, and derived satisfaction at his dramatic renaissance. For many voters ‘revenge was sweet’; they revelled in Rudd’s rebirth. Abbott was caught open-mouthed.

Clearly, Rudd had been developing his strategy for ages. He saw that neutralizing key planks in Abbott’s election platform was crucial.

His first move was to defuse the ‘carbon tax’ charade. Although Abbott and the sycophantic Greg Hunt mindlessly continued with their ‘carbon tax is ruining the economy’ mantra, all the evidence of the last twelve months made that catchphrase unsustainable. Whyalla continued to prosper, the small increases in electricity costs resulting from the tax were exactly as predicted, and the cost of lamb roasts failed to soar to $100. Well-compensated consumers ceased complaining. Talk of ‘the ever rising cost of living’ by Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Fourth Estate was soon seen by objective observers as empty hype.

A problem that never was had lost its illusory magic for the Coalition, but its minders persisted in pumping out the same tired old carbon tax rhetoric. When Rudd declared that Labor would bring forward by one year the transition from a price on carbon to an emissions trading scheme linked to the market in Europe and elsewhere, the Coalition’s carbon tax scaremongering was effectively buried. Rudd pointed out that he had thereby effectively ‘terminated’ the carbon tax, leaving Abbott’s longstanding threat to ‘axe the tax’ an empty gesture. Abbott could not terminate it any quicker.

Abbott’s reaction was to insist that an ETS was still a tax and that Rudd was using sleight of hand. He lamely told a Launceston audience that "He's changed its name, but he hasn't abolished the tax. He's not the terminator, he's the exaggerator. He’s not the terminator, he’s the fabricator”. He continued with his line that business would still be heavily burdened, although with the price of CO2 on the European market being less than the existing fixed price, the burden would actually lessen. Abbott’s carbon tax weapon buckled - a flimsy plastic sword attempting to pierce tough armour.

Although people stopped listening to his weary predictions of carbon tax doom, it took many days before his minders advised him to ease up on what was now a spent campaign of fear mongering. He still occasionally utters carbon tax hyperbole, but without conviction. His intention that the next election be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’ quietly evaporated, leaving him dismayed, stammering and deflated. The Abbott disintegration gathered pace. He was like a boy whose most treasured marble had been smashed by his opponent’s prize tombola.

Anticipating an adverse ICAC finding about ex-Labor ministers Eddie Obeib and Ian Macdonald, Rudd announced a reorganization of the NSW Labor Party and a new mechanism for replacing a Labor PM. Knowing that he would have to wear the ignominy of that corruption inquiry, Rudd attempted to blunt it. Abbott was soon out trying to implicate Rudd and Federal Labor. ”Labor is rotten to the core” he insisted. How much that affair will be in the mind of NSW voters at election time is unknowable; Nathan Rees estimates it will reduce Labor’s primary vote there by 2 to 3%. How much can Abbott damage Labor over and above the damage already done? Rudd was proactive, leaving Abbott to react, but to what effect?

Next Rudd sought to deactivate the asylum seeker issue, one that has bedeviled Labor ever since he removed elements of Howard’s Pacific Solution in 2008. The issue was causing such angst among some voters, most noticeably in Western Sydney, that it needed to be defused. Curiously though, a recent Essential Report revealed that it was well down the list of voters’ most important issues in deciding how to vote. But as it was going to be a source of adverse publicity every time another boat arrived, it needed to be neutralized, and Abbott’s ‘turn the boats around’ strategy nullified.

Rudd met with Indonesian President Yudhoyono, who in a joint communiqué with Rudd made it clear that Indonesia did not approve of any unilateral action by Australia, which turning boats around would have been. Rudd pointedly drew that to the Coalition's attention. Abbott, Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop tried to counter by suggesting that they had some sort of understanding with Indonesia about the turn back policy, only to have that rebutted by Indonesian officials. Desultory talk of the boats being ‘Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged, boarded in Indonesian ports, and crewed by Indonesians’, which was code for ‘these are your boats, you can have them back’, was not well received. All this exposed Coalition disrespect towards Indonesia, an aggressive, hairy-chested, Howardesque ‘we will decide who comes here’ approach, and a neo-colonial attitude. It reflected Abbott’s lack of diplomatic skills, his aggression, and the disarray of his plans to counter boat arrivals.

Next, after a meeting in Brisbane with the PM of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, Kevin Rudd announced jointly with him an arrangement for PNG to permanently resettle those arriving by boat without a visa. The message to asylum seekers and people traffickers was strident: "Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee".

At first Abbott seemed impressed enough to not instantly oppose the PNG plan, no doubt thinking it could serve him well. Predictably though, he could not resist the temptation to knock the idea, and Rudd, the originator. Soon he was telling anyone who would listen that Rudd was all talk and no action, that while he was great at making announcements he was hopeless at implementation, that the PNG plan would likely fail, and that the boats would continue. Abbott and Bishop unwisely said that Rudd was handing O’Neill a blank aid cheque, (which of course the Coalition would never do), and that O’Neill had boasted to them that he now had full control of Australia’s aid budget to PNG. A stern rebuttal by O’Neill left Abbott and Bishop floundering and wary of exacerbating their diplomatic blunder. Losing his nerve in an aspect of national leadership in which he has had no experience, Abbott looked flummoxed; Bishop bravely tried to parry it away.

So far two planeloads of single men are already on Manus Island, and the boat arrivals have slowed. If the boat arrivals are halted, if the people smugglers accept that their ‘product’ – residence in Australia – is no longer saleable, Rudd will be able to say: ‘Labor’s PNG plan has stopped the boats’, which would leave Admiral Abbott slopping about in his own boat, well and truly up the creek without a paddle. Time will tell how well Rudd’s PNG plan neutralizes Abbott’s ‘We’ll stop the boats’ mantra. If it does, that would leave another Abbott weapon blunted and crumpled, and Abbott’s disintegration gathering speed.

The Coalition’s next reaction was to boost the Nauru facility with a big increase in capacity with lots more tents. Abbott extolled Nauru as a pleasant island, implying that refugees ought to be satisfied being housed and even settled there. Scott Morrison travelled there on a private jet at the invitation of Toll Holdings, major suppliers of tents, along with a News Limited reporter and photographer to give publicity to the Coalition announcement that it would put up more tents to accommodate another 2000 asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Tony Burke quickly pointed out that putting a public figure on total capacity was a mistake, “as it gave people smugglers intelligence about how to ‘game’ and ‘overwhelm’ the policy”.

Yesterday, in a move that emulates Abbott’s Nauru Plan, Kevin Rudd and Nauru's President Baron Waqa signed an agreement similar to the PNG one. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat can now be processed in Nauru and, if found to be genuine refugees, can be resettled there. Once more, the Government is calling the shots on refugees; when the Coalition makes a move, Rudd matches it. Abbott and Morrison play their top card; Rudd trumps it. They can't take a trick!

The level of disarray in Coalition circles was then exposed even more starkly, this time over education funding and the Gonski recommendations. Initially, Abbott and his verbose education spokesman Christopher Pyne ridiculed Gonski, with a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. Pyne could see nothing wrong with the current system of funding despite the report of the Gonski committee after many months of exhaustive work that demonstrated conclusively that the system was unfair, inequitable to the disadvantaged and the public sector, and indeed ‘broken’.

The Abbott/Pyne reaction was first to say that Gonski was a ‘con’, a ‘Conski’, and that since this National Plan for School Improvement was indeed a national one, unless all States collaborated the Coalition would not proceed with it in government. Then it insisted that the ‘vast majority’ of States should be ‘on board’. Then it stepped back a little and said it would honour any deals done with the States for its first year in Government. Last week Abbott wrote to all school principals indicating that the Coalition had ‘deep reservations’ about the Gonski arrangements. Yet the next day he announced it would match all the Gonski funding arrangements that Labor has made with the States, boasting that ‘Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket’. Obviously, he needed to neutralize this issue. Did State premiers put a flea in his ear, or did private Liberal polling tell him that opposition to Gonski was a big negative among voters?

In a blustering interview, Pyne confirmed that the Coalition would honour the Gonski ‘funding envelope’, but would dismantle what he termed ‘Labor’s central command and control features’. He insisted the Coalition would give more control to schools and principals. Abbott, Pyne, and the Coalition, have collectively turned turtle on virtually every aspect of Gonski, except on the issue of ‘school autonomy’, which incidentally runs counter to the concept of a national curriculum and consequent Gillard reforms. After all the huff and puff on Gonski, what we have now is an almost total Coalition retreat, or to use journalistic parlance, ‘a massive back flip’. Some commentators though are labeling the back flip a ‘con’. Time will tell.

In the lead up to the Government’s Economic Statement, Joe Hockey was out there preempting its content by insisting that the Government’s estimates were always wrong, never right, never to be trusted, that the Government had lost control of its budget, and in fact it was hopeless! He went close to demeaning Treasury. No doubt this outburst was also to preempt the inevitable criticism that will be heaped upon his head when the Gonski funding of $5 billion a year is added to the $70 billion Hockey has already conceded he has to find in expenditure cuts, and he struggles to do so. He seems unwilling to accept Treasury figures, is not committed to the Charter of Budget Honesty that Peter Costello established, and is talking about using State government resources and private accounting firms to verify Coalition costings – shades of the ‘audit’ of its costings that Perth accountants HK Howarth carried out last time, for which it copped a professional reprimand and a fine for its shonky work.

Have you noticed how testy, angry, and belligerent Hockey has become of late? His bellowing has become more strident; his mouth opens even wider, his assertions are more raucous, his fists clenched tighter. It is a sign of tension, anxiety and anger that the election that was to be a shoo-in is now a tight race to an uncertain finishing line.

Last Friday came the Government’s Economic Statement where Treasurer Chris Bowen and Finance Minister Penny Wong detailed the Government’s revised projections for revenue and expenditure, rather unsettling reading, the result of a volatile global economy that has resulted in large write-downs in revenue, and consequent severe cuts to expenditure. Among them was the already-announced modification to the Fringe Benefits Tax arrangements for motor vehicle use, which is designed to eliminate the rorting that results from the flat 20% salary package allowance for travel, one that is applicable no matter whether the vehicle is or is not used for business. The move has angered many businesses and charities, and the salary-packaging industry, and the Coalition has vowed to reverse it.

Then there was the increase in tobacco excise, clearly to boost its revenue, but importantly a health measure that in the past has always resulted in fewer smokers. Reflexly, Abbott was out commiserating with poor old pensioners used to enjoying their smokes and booze now having to pay more, but failing to acknowledge that many young people might now never start smoking. Implicitly, he was offering support for important Liberal Party donors – the tobacco industry.

Next was the establishment of a Financial Stability Fund to help in the case of future bank bailouts, to be funded by a 0.05% levy on deposits of up to $250,000. The banks and tax associations screamed blue murder. They soon had a sympathetic Abbott and Hockey smoothing their ruffled feathers, presumably thereby willing to forego that boost to their budget bottom line.

There were other measures to reduce spending, and funding was announced for some new items such as the PNG plan.

Within hours, Joe Hockey was on the airwaves literally spitting out his ‘crisis’ message: “The Budget is in freefall, the Government has lost control of the Budget, and it is losing control of the economy”. He stopped short of saying that the Government had bullied Treasury in making its estimates, but barely. Shadow Finance Minister Robb was soon insisting the Government did not know which levers to pull, and Mathias Cormann was on the TV berating the Government from every quarter. But none of them suggested what they would do differently. It was all destructive criticism; with not a skerrick of constructive advice.

Yet, it is the Coalition that is losing control. Losing control of its election agenda, losing control of its most telling strategies, losing control of its key points of difference from Labor. With its ‘carbon tax’ mantra deactivated, its asylum seeker policy neutralized, and its Gonski funding backflips now aligning it with Labor’s policy, what has it left? Abbott is a worried man. Some of his supporters too are worried.

Niki Savva, one of Abbott’s most sycophantic supporters, is clearly panicky. She writes: “Ultimately not all the credit for Rudd Reflux belongs to the media or to his selfie. The opposition deserves some for fluffing its initial responses to the PNG Solution and meandering hopelessly on Gonski. If it mucks up its handling of Bowen's statement and its own economic policy, it's pretty much over. Three strikes will count the opposition out and Kevin in.” When the likes of Savva write like this, the panic will soon permeate Coalition ranks and corrode the Abbott mind. His disintegration will move apace.

What do other Coalition backers say? Writing in The Australian this weekend, Peter van Onselen says: “In the ordinary course of events the Coalition would not be returned to power…because it hasn't developed an alternative vision for the nation. Even if Abbott found a sudden interest in, and stomach for, these policy scripts, his frontbench would struggle to implement the changes." Chris Kenny says: “Abbott's greatest weakness could well be that he is too timid.” There’s not much enthusiasm for Abbott there!

Abbott has already chickened out of a debate on the economy, leaving Rudd to make a comprehensive statement on the state of the economy at the Canberra Press Club alone. He has also backed away from a debate about asylum seekers. The man is scared and it shows. The best he can do is to habitually clutch to his chest his favourite Noddy book: "Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians" that he hopes will convince voters that he actually has a plan!

Abbott has an established reputation as a vicious attack-dog, a vacuous bully-boy, and a bad-tempered head kicker who hates losing. His arms outstretched, he sees the keys to The Lodge receding. He sees a dead cert turning into a tight contest. He sees his tactical weapons deactivated one after the other. He sees his options diminishing. He sees the popularity of his new adversary rising, the polls reversing, his chances evaporating.

He is angry, dismayed, uncertain, unable to struggle out of the slogan-driven rut that has been his home for three years, unable to reinvent himself. He looks tense and desperate. Rudd is playing with his mind, until today leaving him uncertain about the election date, uncertain about what Rudd will do next, uncertain about what he should do next. Uncertainty breeds anxiety and self-doubt. Both corrode. Disintegration follows: steady, then quickening, finally inexorable. It is now clear for all to see.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, emails will be sent to: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Bob Carr, Mathias Cormann, Mark Dreyfus, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Ed Husic, Richard Marles, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Have a go at these questions about asylum seekers

Is there any more vexed political issue than that of refugees seeking asylum in this country? It remains so despite the recent advent of the Refugee Resettlement Agreement with Papua New Guinea.

The refugee issue was politicized by Pauline Hansen, and readily taken up by John Howard with the ‘Tampa episode’ and his 2001 election pledge: “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.” Because commentators insisted it was that stand which got him over the line in what was shaping as a probable defeat, politicians on both sides quickly saw the political advantage of being ‘tough on asylum seekers’. Later Howard followed up with his ‘Pacific Solution’. In more recent times Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have sought to exploit Howard’s line by highlighting every new boat arrival as a Labor failure, now ‘a national emergency’, every drowning as ‘blood on Labor’s hands’, and the dismantling of the Howard three point deterrent plan as a foolish Rudd mistake. Many in the nation’s electorates, especially those in Western Sydney, agree. It is their votes that Labor seeks to retrieve.

So we are stuck with this situation, redolent as it is with racial prejudice, sometimes stark xenophobia, and simmering anger directed at asylum seekers and towards any party that allows them to keep coming. This is inflamed by politicians and fanned by a moribund Fourth Estate desperate to retain its relevancy.

Mr Denmore puts it so well in his piece: The Australian Asylum: “There are two dimensions to the refugees issue. One is managing the problem itself - a relatively marginal one for a rich economy that leads the developed world on most economic metrics. The second dimension - and the trickier one - is the theatrics around the issue, a charade kept alive by attention-seeking sections of the news media and the frightened politicians they goad into one piece of policy knee-jerkery after another. The facts of the refugee situation – however many times they are raised – don't seem to register. What matters for the dying institutions of our news media is that this issue is an emotive, eyeball-grabbing one, encompassing age-old fears of brown skinned hordes shattering our cosy, white bread suburban lives. As such, it's tailor-made for endless re-jigging on the front pages of the Tele and the Hun.”

He goes onto say: “That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly from fanning fear of refugees to pleading for their humanity to calling for security crackdowns to castigating the government for the cost of security is neither here nor there. What's important in media terms is that this story is easy fodder for fulmination and vein-popping outrage in dead trees media and on talkback radio. Meanwhile, the refugee issue is manna for political parties desperately seeking to differentiate themselves and cover up the fact that most of the major issues we face are beyond the control of nation states acting on their own (climate change, the structure of the financial system and the global movement of people).

“None of this is to claim that finding policy solutions to the seaborne drift of asylum seekers is easy or that there are not costs involved - strategically, financially or morally. But it would help us all if we were spared the self-serving screeching of the popular media and the grandstanding of populist politicians who jump to its orders in the vague hope of appearing relevant.”

Having read many expositions on asylum-seekers, and having listened to countless politicians and journalists express their opinions about the situation and what ought to be done about it, I am struck with the disjointed way in which this seemingly intractable issue is approached. Every commentator seems to select an angle that suits his or her position, particularly since the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Agreement with the government of PNG. The Greens mouth ‘cruelty’, the Coalition ‘border protection’, and Labor ‘people smugglers’. Seldom do we have the benefit of a commentator who has looked at the problem from every angle, has analyzed each, and has drawn logical conclusions from that analysis. We get a ‘bits and pieces’ approach that too often reflects partisan positions. Predictably, politicians do this habitually, but we ought to expect better from commentators who are able to sit back and view the situation rather more dispassionately. Sadly they too often reflect a partisan bias, born of the media organization’s particular preference. Balanced, fair, factual analysis is virtually dead in the Fourth Estate, as Mr Denmore asserts. It has its own idiosyncratic commercial and ideological agendas to pursue.

Rather than attempting to give my take on the asylum-seeker issue, I though it might be more instructive to step back and detail some of the questions that need to be asked in arriving at a position. Some answers are given – in bold; most of the answers are yours to supply.

Have a go at these:

What is an asylum-seeker? What is a refugee?

There is a great deal of confusion about the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee and often the terms are used interchangeably or incorrectly. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. In contrast, a refugee is someone who has been recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be a refugee. The Convention defines a ‘refugee’ as any person who: “... owing to well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it …” More.

Has Australia an obligation as a signatory to the UNHCR Refugee Convention to engage with people seeking asylum?


Under the Convention, does Australia continue to have responsibility for finding a country for resettlement if the one to which a genuine refugee is sent cannot accept him/her?


How many refugees are there in the world today?

At the end of 2012 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there were 15.4 million refugees worldwide. By contrast there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons (about twice as many people) at the end of 2012. More .

Is it illegal to seek asylum in Australia?

NO, no matter whether arriving by boat or air.

What proportion of people seeking asylum has arrived in Australia by boat?

Figures to 2011 give an idea: In 2008/09 16%; in 2009/10 47%; and in early 2010/11 44% of asylum seekers arrived by boats; the rest by air. Less than a half arrived by boat. More.

How does Australia rank in accepting refugees?

Australia accepts the third largest number of refugees (including refugees and other humanitarian entrants) for resettlement in the world after the USA and Canada. More.

What is Australia’s current intake under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program?

13,750 annually, to be increased to 20,000, and then possibly to 27,000. More.

Now for some questions for you to answer:

Should the intake be higher? If so, how much higher? Should there be a cap?

Is there an imperative to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by small boats?

Does the loss of life at sea (around 1,000 in recent times) make this imperative stronger?

Do you believe most people in this country want to stop these boat arrivals and the drownings?

Is this our problem to solve alone, or is it a regional and global problem?

Is it reasonable to seek a regional solution that involves all nations in our region?

As a measure to dissuade asylum seekers from coming via boats, a recent Government decision is to disallow entry to Australia to boat arrivals that have no visa, and instead send them to PNG for settlement. Do you regard this as ‘cruel’ policy, as do the Greens? If so, why?

Whether or not you believe this policy is cruel, if an asylum seeker, armed with this knowledge, still chooses to arrive by boat, is this resettlement action by the Government cruel?

Put another way, is it ‘cruel’ to send people escaping persecution to PNG, when they knew that would be the case before they embarked on the boat?

Is life in PNG so bad that it is an act of cruelty to send people there?

If you believe so, given that residents of PNG live there themselves, what makes it such a cruel action to ask asylum seekers to live there too?

Why is it that so many objections to the RRA are being advanced, which throw doubt on the viability of catering for thousands of refugees in PNG, when the object of the exercise is to dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place?

Is Australia obliged to take into its own population those who demand to come here by boat, even if those people have been warned not to arrive in that way?

Is it fair to give admission to those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage, while leaving the poor who cannot afford passage to languish for years in camps in transit countries? Is this consistent with Australia’s ‘fair go’ attitude? Is this consistent with the ‘no advantage’ rule now in place?

Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more deserving to come than the others who cannot?

Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more under threat? Do they have a more urgent and impressive ‘well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’, than others who cannot so afford?

Is it understandable that some Australians resent having what they feel is ‘a gun held to their head’ by people smugglers and those who buy their services, who seem to be saying: ‘we are coming whether you like it or not’?

Is it understandable that some Australians dislike seemingly well-off asylum seekers (for example from Iran) flying to transit countries and immediately buying passage to Australia by boat, while others wait for years in awful camps, (for example those from Burma) unable to buy themselves out?

Do you believe that the persecution, or fear of persecution, of Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Sri Lankans, for example, is worse that the persecution of Burmese or similar folk from our region?

Is there a case to be made for equity in managing the large number of different groups seeking asylum, a tenet of the current ‘no advantage’ approach?

Do you approve people seeking asylum purely for economic reasons – for a better life in this country?

Recognizing that some people have had to leave their country hurriedly without identification documents, do you find it acceptable that people seeking asylum deliberately destroy their identification documents in order make it difficult for Australian authorities to refuse asylum?

What action should be taken against those who destroy the identification documents?

What should happen to those not found to be genuine refugees? Should they be returned to their home country?

Is it understandable that some Australians resent asylum seekers arriving by boat uninvited, and then using our country’s resources provided at the expense of taxpayers?

Notwithstanding such feelings, do you endorse the Coalition’s rhetoric that we are being ‘invaded’, that our borders are ‘threatened’, and that the current state of arrivals constitutes a ‘national emergency’? If so, what is the threat?

Do you approve the Coalition’s just-announced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, (now styled OpSoB) as a response to what the Coalition regards as ‘a national emergency’?

Is it also a ‘cruel’ policy?

Given that the Howard government turned around only four boats, do you believe that the Coalition’s policy of ‘turning the boats around, when it is safe to do so’ is operationally feasible and not a threat to the boats, their occupants, and Navy personnel? Does the ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ policy make this more feasible?

Do you believe that Howard government-style Temporary Protection Visas would diminish the flow of asylum seekers by boat?

While waiting for the processing of asylum claims offshore is understandably extremely frustrating, is it acceptable for asylum seekers in offshore processing centres to riot and destroy property?

What action should authorities take against the rioters?

Given that confinement on offshore venues for long periods waiting for processing is mentally taxing, what should be done to diminish the mental trauma? How is it possible to avoid mental disturbances when the ‘no advantage’ rule is being applied to those who came ahead of the many who still wait in camps in transit countries?

Is there any definitive way to avoid mental illness in detention? What more could/should be done to prevent it?

Would a degree of certainty about when asylum claims would finally be processed help, even if distant?

Would meaningful work and satisfying productivity postpone mental problems?

Should commercial endeavours be introduced into detention centres, as exists in prisons?

Should there be sporting, recreational and artistic activities introduced into detention centres?

Do you believe that children should not be sent for offshore processing?

Do you believe that unaccompanied children should not be sent for offshore processing?

What do you feel about asylum seekers deliberating sending unaccompanied children ahead of them on boats, so as to ‘get a foot in the door’ for the family?

If these children were exempted from removal to offshore processing, would that act as an incentive for people smugglers to operate in this way?

Do you approve of Australian citizens who have been granted asylum here, actively collaborating with people smugglers to bring fellow citizens here, as has been alleged recently?

Do you believe that immigration should be orderly, that although there is no hypothetical queue, there ought to be a mechanism for taking asylum seekers according to need and time of waiting?

Is there a case for substantially boosting processing facilities in transit countries and in countries of origin?

Could that reduce the numbers seeking to arrive by people-smugglers’ boats?

Given that the Greens seek a more ‘humanitarian’, less ‘cruel’ approach, and want an increased asylum and humanitarian intake, how do you believe they would like our immigration program to work?

Would the Greens impose any restrictions? If so what might they be?

How many who agree with the approach of the Greens have accommodated refugees in their own homes or in their communities? How has that turned out?

The above questions were designed to be neutral, rather than suggesting a particular answer.

If you were able to answer them comprehensively, would the answers assist you to devise a more satisfactory system for managing those seeking asylum in our country?

Do you believe that those who offer opinions about how to manage asylum-seekers ought to have answers to these questions, or have reflected on them?

Frankly, I am weary of reading or listening to pundits who take a myopic approach to the asylum-seeker problem, criticising this aspect or that, which is easy to do, yet who never make a comprehensive analysis of the multiplicity of factors, who never address its enormous complexity, and who thereby never come up with a wide-ranging assessment or a complete plan. The only group to have done this was the Houston Panel. Although they acknowledged the extraordinary complexity of the matter, they were able to develop a far-reaching plan, the so called ‘no advantage’ plan, one that proposed that those who came by boat and thereby short-circuited an orderly process, would not be advantaged over those who ‘waited their turn’. This operates at present.

Tony Abbott still relies on three word slogans as the Coalition’s solution, and now he has another: ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. Scott Morrison uses verbal emesis to bully his way through interviews, regurgitating the same old words of condemnation of everything Labor has done, and praise for what the Howard government did with its tripartite approach, which he endlessly reminds us can be done again, presumably now via OpSoB. Together, they have condemned and opposed every move Labor has made to ameliorate the problem.

The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders response to this complex matter is confined to a revised command structure that seems to be directed at better coordinating the ‘turn the boats around’ strategy. Where is its critical analysis of the multiple factors? Where is its detailed appraisal of this global problem that might lead to better understanding? All it continues to serve up is just more of the same simplistic approach, as if nothing has changed in the refugee situation in the last decade. ‘Turning the boats around when it is safe to do so’, which they insist can be done as it was done before, is offered irrespective of what maritime experts say and what the Indonesians think or say. The Coalition posits an ‘invasion’, a dire threat to our borders, a national emergency, and comes up with a military-style response.

The Greens represent the ‘bleeding heart’ elements in society. Sarah Hanson-Young and Christine Milne perpetually urge a more humanitarian approach; they eschew what they label as ‘cruelty’ toward the most vulnerable, those fleeing persecution. They urge a warm-hearted approach, a welcoming pair of arms, a line regarded by their supporters as laudable and praiseworthy, as indeed it is.

But there is never a moderating word, never a concession that not all seeking asylum can be accommodated, never a mention of whether there would need to be a limit, never a suggestion of how the practice of people smuggling might be countered, never a hint of how deaths at sea might realistically be avoided. It is all openhearted charity without apparent limit, without addressing the practical reality of hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking to come here, without tackling the problem of the people smugglers who are making a fortune out of the human misery in which they trade, men who would never willingly surrender their lucrative operations. It is all warmth without a hard-nosed element at all. There is never any comprehensive plan, such as they would be required to present were they in government. Never being in danger of being in power is their haven. Their legal confederates have joined with them by placing legal barriers in the way of moves that Labor has made, specifically the ‘Malaysia solution’, thrown out by the High Court.

For Labor’s part, it has struggled from one ‘solution’ to another. It has been forced by increasing arrivals to retreat from the ‘more humanitarian’ approach introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2008, required to explore regional approaches (East Timor and Malaysia) as the arrivals continued, forced to reintroduce most of the Howard’s strategies, eventually required to resort to an expert (Houston) panel to advise it, until finally Kevin Rudd was propelled to introduce the RRA with PNG. Even this option faces legal challenges and the difficulty of settling non-Melanesians in a Melanesian society.

At every turn Labor has met with resistance and criticism from the Greens, and trenchant opposition and obstruction from the Coalition, for whom it seemed the continuance of boat arrivals was a political plus.

I can offer no magic solution. I believe there is none without strong tripartisan support, the ongoing involvement of other nations in our region, and the development and implementation of a regional ‘solution’. Instead, as I did when I addressed this issue in Applying facts and logic in the asylum-seeker issue and again in What is the role of political blog sites?, I challenge those who oppose what Labor has done and is doing, what the Coalition proposes, and what the Greens seem to want, to come up with their own answers.

Any who insist on criticising what others are doing or proposing ought to tell us what THEY would do. I challenge any who attempt to do this, to do so only after answering the questions above, if they can.

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following politicians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Doug Cameron, Bob Carr, Jason Clare, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Joel Fitzgibbon, Josh Frydenberg, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joe Hockey, Mike Kelly, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Judi Moylan, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Philip Ruddock, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott: two gentlemen politicians

It is not often that retiring politicians receive the lavish praise that has been heaped upon the Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, praise so richly deserved.

In the turmoil of partisan politics where self-interest so often dominates, it was refreshing to witness the way in which these two gentlemen of politics placed the common weal ahead of any self-interest they may have had.

We may have never witnessed such levelheaded politics had there not been a hung parliament after the 2010 election. It fell to the Independents to decide who should govern: Julia Gillard and Labor, or Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Bob Katter soon declared his support for Tony Abbott, probably because his friendship with Kevin Rudd made it difficult for him to support his successor, Julia Gillard. Andrew Crook of the WA Nationals sided with the Coalition, and Greens Adam Bandt with Labor. Andrew Wilkie declared his hand when he rejected Tony Abbott’s promise of a billion dollars for a new teaching hospital in Hobart, an offer he considered to be irresponsible, an offer he believed was designed to benefit Abbott in his quest for prime ministership, rather than the people of Dennison. That left the count at 74 for each side. So it fell to Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to make the decision about who should prevail. The way they went about making that decision will go down in our political history as an exemplar of sound and careful political judgement.

For seventeen agonizing days, the future governance of the nation swung in the balance. They were not going to be rushed – the final decision was too important. On 7 September 2010, they separately announced their decision to support Julia Gillard. Tony Windsor was brief. Rob Oakeshott took seventeen minutes to explain how he had reached his decision while edgy journalists waited impatiently to hear who he intended to support, characteristically more interested in who had won than the intellectual process of arriving at the decision. Finally, both said they would support Julia Gillard, giving her the 76 votes she needed to govern. He said it had been "an absolute line ball, points decision, judgement call."

The final thumbs-up decision and the explanation.

Oakeshott’s speech is worth replaying for its well thought-out approach to the decision he needed to make. Part1; Part 2. Here is Mark Davis’ account of that historic event. Here are some more images of that fateful day, ‘Independents’ Day’, courtesy of The Age.

Oakeshott emphasized that for them both stability in government was the main concern; they wanted one that would run its full term. The other requirement was that the government produced sound outcomes.

‘Stability’ and ‘outcomes’ were highlighted as essential requisites.

He stressed the need ‘to bring Australia together’, to unify. Divisive politics was anathema to them both. Therefore they looked for the party that presented the best chance to “work with us to keep parliament running as long as possible”. Both had previously been involved in minority parliaments in the NSW legislature. They had experienced how they could work. They had confidence that a prime minister with a sound legislative agenda, and a capacity to collaborate, would likely attract support sufficient to carry it out over the three-year term of the parliament. An Agreement to Form Government was drawn up with the Prime Minister.

Pressed later for more detail, both men said that they had more faith in Julia Gillard’s ability to manage a minority government than they had in Tony Abbott’s. They saw she had superior negotiating skills. They believed her when she said that she wanted the parliament to run its full term. In contrast, they felt strongly that Abbott wanted a quick return to the polls to install a ‘legitimate’ government, having already declared that a Gillard government would be ‘illegitimate’, a position from which he never retreated. They sensed he was not at all interested in a long-run parliament.

Yet they were aware that Abbott badly wanted to be prime minister, and would ‘do anything’ to get that prize in his hands, except, as Windsor later reported, ”to offer his arse, and he would consider even that”, so desperate was he! They reported that he was even prepared to introduce a carbon tax if that was one of their conditions, although he had ruled out any such notion early in the negotiations. They judged Abbott to be not ready for the high office he coveted. After three years of minority government, Windsor confirmed that view when he said that they had “probably done Tony a good turn by not handing it to him”, as clearly he was unready.

Oakeshott indicated that he and Windsor, both representing regional electorates, had been able to negotiate with Julia Gillard a good local package for their electorates, a good regional package that offered equity to regional areas, and a good national outcome. The NBN, climate change, mining and gas extraction, regional education and minimizing the chances of an early election, were crucial elements. They judged Julia Gillard as one who could successfully lead a minority government. Their judgement proved to be correct.

In reaching their initial decision, there were some parliamentary matters that were pivotal. They were interested in assuring ‘supply’ and ‘confidence’, and in lifting parliamentary standards and the quality of committee work.

Strongly supportive of the NBN, they recognized how essential it was for the development of regional business, and for its competitiveness. Armidale, at the centre of Windsor’s electorate of New England, was an early recipient of the NBN. Anecdotal stories soon emerged of how the NBN had benefitted businesses there, especially with the improved upload speeds it offered. Developing a plan for the management of water in the Murray-Darling system was a high priority to them both; they played a major role during committee work in achieving a ‘once in a century’ plan.

They were both convinced that man-made global warming was a reality and that urgent action was necessary to slow it down by reducing carbon emissions. They supported the notion of putting a price on carbon preparatory to moving to an emissions trading scheme. Oakeshott had the preservation of biodiversity at the top of his wish list. They could see that was Julia Gillard’s intent, which contrasted starkly with the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, one that was supported neither by economists nor environmentalists as an appropriate answer to global warming. Both were prepared to say so, while most of the Fourth Estate avoided doing so.

They were keen to play down the notion that either party had a ‘mandate’ to govern, that one party had dominance over the other, that one party had been ‘endorsed’. Oakeshott emphasized how unimpressed they both were with the state of federal politics, stressed the value of strong independents, and highlighted the importance of private members’ bills. They underscored the need to be committed to the electorates, and for the electorates and the country as a whole to be the drivers for debate. They also proposed a plan for changes in how the House of Representatives worked, a streamlined Question Time, and the prospect of conscience votes on private members’ bills on controversial subjects such as gay marriage. Later they drew up an Agreement for a Better Parliament that reflected these changes, referred to as a ‘new paradigm’ for the parliament, which was publicized as facilitating a ‘kinder, gentler’ parliament, one that responded to the public’s wish for “leaders who ... concentrate on making this country a better place to live”.

Oakeshott described the wide range of politicians, treasury officials, federal departments, and stakeholders they had consulted, as well as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, in what he described as an open and transparent process, one that enabled them to reach the decision “to guarantee confidence and supply to a Gillard Government, unless exceptional circumstances dictated otherwise”.

In line with their desire to improve parliamentary committee work, they have both played a central role.

Tony Windsor became a member of the following committees: Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Primary Industries and Resources; Regional Australia; Privileges and Members' Interests; and the Joint Select Committees on Australia's Clean Energy Future Legislation and Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. He contributed enormously to the Climate Change Committee. He was also a member of the Speaker’s Panel.

Rob Oakeshott was a member of these committees: House of Representatives Standing Committees on Education and Training; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs; Infrastructure and Communications, the Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit; the Joint Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs; Defence and Trade; Parliamentary Library; and National Broadband Network; Joint Select Committees on Cyber-Safety; Parliamentary Budget Office; Australia's Immigration Detention Network; Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; and Broadcasting Legislation.

Together, through their committee work, they have had a particularly strong influence on deliberations about the NBN, climate change and carbon trading, the impact of coal seam gas exploration, regional Australia, the Murray Darling water plan, infrastructure, communications, broadcasting, indigenous affairs, and education.

Windsor took a special interest in coal seam gas and its impact on farming and the environment, and was heavily involved in the successful passage of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment that insisted on a proper independent scientific process for evaluating the impacts of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments, especially in prime farmland.

It has not been without its costs to them personally and professionally. They were subjected to biting criticism by Coalition members “for going against the wishes of their ‘conservative’ electorates in supporting a Labor minority government”. The fact that both New England and Lyne voters had convincingly chosen independents rather than conservatives, four times in the case of Tony Windsor and twice in the case of Rob Oakeshott, makes that criticism tenuous.

Abuse was directed to their electorate offices, presumably from angry Coalition supporters who felt they had been robbed of power that was rightfully theirs, but they reported that generally the people they met in the streets of their electorates were supportive of them. Early indications were that Tony Windsor was doing so well in the polls against Barnaby Joyce that Joyce was concerned he may have a battle on his hands. Later Windsor indicated he would not be contesting the seat because of health concerns: “I am experiencing some health issues which have yet to be resolved, and as much as I love this job I don’t want to die in it.” And anyway he felt he had other things that needed his attention – his family and his farming. Likewise, Rob Oakeshott felt his wife and young family of four deserved more of his time. For them, this oft-cited reason for retirement was not an excuse, but a genuine desire to leave the hothouse of intrigue, conflict, double-dealing and sabotage that is federal politics today, and attend to matters closer to home.

It is to their eternal credit that they stuck with Julia Gillard throughout, until her own party removed her. They said their loyalty was based on mutual respect earned as each adhered to the agreement they struck in 2010. They said she had not let them down - she had kept her side of the bargain. In turn, they did not let her down.

In a touching tribute to a wistful Julia Gillard, in his valedictory speech Rob Oakeshott told her he had tweeted her on the night of her replacement by Kevin Rudd: “Your father would have been proud of you”. In the same speech he wryly observed: ““I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years, to meet ugly Australia and just to see the width and depth of ugly Australia.” Is it a surprise then that he would seek relief from the unremitting nastiness and ugliness that surrounded him for the life of the 43rd parliament?

What did they achieve? Virtually what they set out to achieve. The parliament ran full term, there was no motion of ‘no-confidence’ ever put, despite many threats by the Coalition, ‘supply’ was assured, and in the three years of the Gillard Government almost six hundred pieces of legislation were enacted with 87% bipartisan agreement. The crossbenchers directly altered 27 bills, and had the Government make changes to many others. It was the most productive parliament ever, the complete opposite of what was predicted by Tony Abbott, the Coalition, and much of the media, which preferred to characterize it as an incompetent, ineffectual, chaotic government.

Many major reforms were passed into law – a price on carbon leading to an ETS in 2015, the Murray-Darling water plan, the NBN, the NDIS, the Gonski education reforms being among the most significant. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were instrumental in facilitating all of them. They enabled a minority government to be spectacularly successful, even in the face of the most trenchantly negative and obstructionist opposition in recent history. Their role in successful governance has been immense. Not all their wishes reached fruition; for example, the debate on major tax reform was sidestepped, and doubts exist as to the future of the recognition of local government in the Constitution.

When the history of these two gentlemen of federal politics is written, it will make clear just how much they contributed, just how much they enabled, just how much their support of the Gillard Government has meant to our nation. Together they have made a major contribution to good governance.

They were the epitome of commonsense, rational advocacy, balanced judgement and gentlemanly behaviour, always free of the nastiness and spitefulness so often associated with partisan politics.

The hurly-burly of politics too often distracts from the achievements of politicians. When the shouting and tumult of the 43rd parliament finally dissipates, the true value of these two outstanding politicians will on be record for all to see.

We who have followed them with admiration for the last three years acknowledge their enormous contribution. They enjoy our deep respect. We extend to them both our heartfelt thanks and every good wish for the future.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard: Kerry-Anne Walsh. A Review

This is an enthralling book. It carries the telling subtitle: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister. For political tragics, it is a ‘must read’. For others who wonder what on earth goes on in the hallowed halls of Parliament House and the Canberra Press Gallery, it is a revealing exposé. It is literally a ‘page-turner’, one of the most illuminating books on Canberra politics that I have read.

Its author, Kerry-Anne Walsh, is a highly respected political journalist who spent twenty-five years in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, leaving it in 2009 after becoming disenchanted with political spin. She has been a columnist for several local and overseas papers, a producer of TV programs, and a panelist on the ABC’s Insiders and on Sky Agenda.

Ms Walsh kept a diary of the extraordinary time in federal politics from June 2011 to April 2013 during which the Gillard Government was in power. At the end there is a postscript in which 18 June is the date last mentioned, just two days before the two year campaign of sabotage of Julia Gillard and her government by what Walsh describes as ‘Team Rudd’ brought about her replacement by the one she had replaced three years and three days earlier.

Those who have followed federal politics closely will be familiar with every step of the stalking process. What Walsh does is to fill in for the reader the behind-the-scenes machinations in the hothouse that is Canberra politics. She exposes the complicity of the Press Gallery in every move made by Team Rudd. She names those who see themselves as influential ‘players’ in the process: insiders, confidants, king makers and destroyers, and documents their involvement. We know all those she names; the extent of their involvement though is a revelation.

It will not surprise you that Peter Hartcher emerges as perhaps the most determined Rudd supporter, one who despite his senior position as Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor, time and again seemingly discarded the tenets of balanced journalism to become a strident advocate for Rudd and ‘Team Rudd’, a would-be kingmaker who fashioned stories to be powerfully pro-Rudd, and who served as a conduit for every scrap of Team Rudd propaganda he was fed. It is my view that in doing so he damaged the principles of objective journalism, Fairfax media, and most of all himself. Walsh had this to say about Hartcher: “What now of journalists such as the Sydney Morning’ Herald’s Peter Hartcher, who promoted Rudd’s cause month after month? I emailed him questions about the ethics of his reportage and his commentary on the leadership issues, given his robust advocacy for Rudd. He responded that he ‘utterly’ rejected my premise that he had advocated for Rudd, ‘and, therefore, the questions predicated on it’.

There were some political journalists though that Walsh did not name: “…two of Aunty’s most respected political journalists were said to be privy to the inside running on Rudd’s battle plan for his February 2 challenge weeks before the leadership ballot, yet they chose to keep this to themselves.” I wonder who they were: Chris Uhlmann, Barrie Cassidy, Tony Jones, or someone else?

Writing about the never-ending succession of deadlines set by Team Rudd or media pundits by which Julia Gillard would be gone, Walsh says: ”When one deadline fails to eventuate, it should be an embarrassment for a gullible media; when dozens fail to materialize over two years, it’s been a massive, humiliating con…We in the Fourth Estate have much to answer for.” She goes on to write: “As the ABC’s political editor at 7.30, Chris Uhlmann, remarked frankly after the day of high farce: [the day of the aborted 2013 Rudd challenge] ‘The media has played a role in this, and it’s for others I guess to parse how well or how badly the media has done. There’s not a shadow of doubt that the media has been used to help build momentum, to help build a sense of chaos, particularly this week. And anytime it looked like it was falling off, there was someone else [from Team Rudd] out and about…There is absolutely no doubt the Rudd forces have been using the media quite cleverly for some time now.”

These are revealing admissions from an insider of a reality that those of us in the Fifth Estate suspected for a long while. Yet the wider electorate is likely still largely oblivious of the media’s grossly manipulative behaviour.

Walsh confirms what we have been saying here for ages when she writes: “The press gallery can be a beast that feeds on itself. Apart from attending the occasional press conference, Question Time or ministerial interview, gallery journalists are shackled to their desks. Their company is each other; their sounding boards are each other; their judgements about the political angle of the day are formed out of exchanges with each other. But the competition is fierce for a headline story – to be the agenda-setting pundit, or to be the first online to repeat a whisper. The added dimension for journalists nowadays is the voracious appetite for novelty that the twenty-four-hour online story beast demands. Coupled with the sacking by newspapers of experienced sub-editors and fact-checkers, journalists find themselves in a dangerous new space of unvetted reporting. In this climate, the anonymous quote – once used only to protect legitimate deep throats or to give nuance to a story – became the most popular bedrock for Gillard-Rudd leadership stories that dominated headlines and threatened the PM and her government. Every rule in the handbook of good journalism was broken.”

Later Walsh writes: “Over the last few years there have been serious reporting mistakes, gross errors of judgements, biased commentary and empowering of Team Rudd’s agenda. When the house of cards collapsed – twice – those journalists remained at their desks. And they all pull handsome salaries; they are paid more than a backbencher in many cases, and among the upper echelons as much as ministers. But while ministers are forced into abject mea culpas and apologies for mistakes, we in the fourth estate simply waltz on to the next project without acknowledging our errors. The media holds politicians up to the highest possible standards of behaviour. Not even human error or a slight slip of the tongue escapes our harsh judgements; the echo of ridicule about Gillard’s mispronunciation in April 2011 of ‘hyperbole’, for instance, still reverberates. Something has to give.”

Indeed, something ought to give. But will it, given the dilapidated and steadily collapsing state of the Fourth Estate, its degraded state of journalism, its clearly partisan orientation, and the political and commercial intent of its owners? Sadly, the answer seems to be NO!

Let’s now see what Walsh has to say about the polls: “The fortnightly Newspoll published by The Australian, the monthly AC Nielsen poll published in Fairfax newspapers, and the ad hoc Galaxy polls published in News Limited tabloids are treated by journalists as more important when assessing the government’s performance than its achievements or policies. Yet these polls are at best arbitrary snapshots of the public’s mood, tiny random samples of a voter’s reflexive reaction to events of the day – reactions that are strongly influenced by the media’s portrayal of the way the government is faring. And the way the media interprets the polls influences the next poll – constant cries that the government is wretched and doomed, is led by a wretched and doomed leader, affect the perception the voting public has of the government and its prime minister. Journalists who habitually ply statistics to promote the case that a government or its leader is terminal when there are months, even years, before an election are engaging in fraudulent misrepresentation. They are conning the public.”

Continuing with her appraisal of polls, Walsh writes: “These days the regular published newspaper polls concentrate on voting intentions alone, and reporters simply look back at political events of the previous fortnight and draw conclusions about the issues that have affected the public mood – even if there is no proven connection. They then peer into their crystal balls and declare that, based on their deductions and the numbers in front of them, it spells doom or success at an election that can be the political equivalent of light years away. Yet the future is full of events, circumstances, people, twists and turns that will affect and maybe change voters’ opinions of their elected representatives. Because the headline results are circulated the night before, so as to maximize a particular newspaper’s bang for its bucks, the polls are absorbed and spat out by television and radio from dawn the next day. The conclusions of those journalists and commentators who interpret the polls frame the political discourse for the day, sometimes for forty-eight hours, and are echoed in the news analyses from other media outlets.

“Independent polling analyst Andrew Catsaras is appalled by how the polls are often interpreted, and that the interpretation is then mimicked elsewhere. Even polls that show no change, or changes within the 3 per cent margin of error are splashed around by the commissioning organization. The Australian, for example, is brilliant at prominently running reams of copy on polls that haven’t shifted, or only shifted slightly, setting an artificial news agenda for the day. ‘The papers that spend money on these polls need to make news stories out of them, even if there’s nothing to report’, Catsaras tells me. ‘The interpretation is often distorted – if they want to promote a leadership story, they can do it. What is a statistical variation can be interpreted or spun around something that has occurred in the political world in the previous fortnight, even if there is no connection at all.’

Her final words on polls are these: “Many senior politicians privately anguish over the influence Newspoll and The Australian have on power plays and the standing and conduct of governments and opposition, but they feel helpless to take on what is now treated as an omniscient part of the political infrastructure. They also need to keep News Limited onside; over the years The Australian’s editors, using polls as its principle weapon, have worked deftly to erode the standing of governments or leaders they don’t like or don’t deem fit to govern.”

There you have it, from an experienced insider. There you have what we have been saying here for years about political journalists, polls, the media owners, indeed about the whole Fourth Estate. A truly satisfying aspect of Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book is the confirmation of so much of what we have known or suspected and written about for so long.

It is to be hoped that in the next edition she adds an afterword that covers the final two days of the Gillard government, how Team Rudd finally succeeded, and how we lost an outstanding leader, Julia Gillard.

Seldom have I read a political exposition so revealing, so informative, so full of insights, so readable, so lucidly written. This review can but touch upon some of its highlights; the book itself needs to be read to unearth its treasure trove. Anyone interested in federal politics that buys a copy, or downloads the E-book version onto a reader, will not be disappointed.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister, Kerry-Anne Walsh, Allen & Unwin, 2013, RRP$29.99.

An accolade for Julia Gillard: a fine prime minister

Wondering what word I should use in the title to best capture my opinion of our first female prime minister, now sadly at the end of her period in federal politics, I have chosen ‘fine’. Of high quality, clear, pure, refined, delicate, subtle, exquisitely fashioned, elevated, capable of delicate perception or discrimination, excellent, of striking merit, good, dignified, are among the many synonyms of ‘fine’. Each on its own portrays how admirers of Julia Gillard see her.

There are other superlatives that apply to this extraordinary woman: courageous, resilient, persistent, tough, a fighter, focused, intelligent and hard working, an accomplished negotiator, a high achiever, one who gets things done. But there are other softer terms: gracious, dignified, poised, good-humoured, friendly, easy-going, relaxed, composed, fond of children, the aged, and the disabled. Another apt adjective is articulate.

How can I justify these laudable descriptors?

Let’s start with the last – ‘articulate’.

There are some who would dispute this, claiming that she could not get her message across, was unable to ‘cut through’, could not convey ‘what she stood for’, her ‘narrative’. This has always been a mystery to me.

How many times did she say that she stands for fairness and opportunity for all, opportunity for all to have a great education, a good job, a rewarding occupation built on a sound education? How many times did she say that she wanted a fairer workplace? How often did she talk about the need for pay equity, paid parental leave and better superannuation?

How many times did she speak about a National School Curriculum, the MySchool website, NAPLAN, and the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding?

How many times did she say she wanted a strong economy to support jobs and growth? Did you hear her say that she wanted to share the profits of mining across the community? How many times did she say that she wanted super fast broadband by way of the NBN to make Australia internationally competitive? How often did she emphasize the need to lift productivity? How often did she say that she wanted to improve road, rail and ports infrastructure? How many times did she say that she wanted an ETS to limit global warming? How often did she urge the development of alternative energy sources?

How many times did she say she wanted a solution for the Murray-Darling water system? How often did she say that she wanted a regional solution to the asylum-seeker problem?

How many times did she say she wanted a better health care system, one that catered for the increasing number of aged, mentally impaired, and the disabled? How many times did you hear her advocate an NDIS? Did you hear her talking about the dangers of alcopops and the need for plain packing on cigarettes?

Did you hear her advocating a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse?

You all heard her say these things over and again.

Where was the Canberra Press Gallery? Asleep, focussed on the trivial, blind to the central issues. Or were journalists simply so spellbound with groupthink that they ‘heard’ only what they wanted to hear, heard only what confirmed them and their editors in their collective view that she had no narrative, and stood for nothing. There were just a few who were not infected with the same groupthink, but the majority drowned their voices out. Sheer ineptitude or malevolent intent are the only plausible explanations for the Fourth Estate’s incompetence.

To me Julia Gillard was articulate; I heard clearly what she said, I understood what she stood for, and I was satisfied and pleased.

Was she able to achieve everything embodied in her narrative? No, there is still unfinished business, but she did achieve an enormous amount in just three years.

Her Government was the highest performing government in Australian political history with around six hundred pieces of legislation passed, many of them visionary reforms.

This is not the place for an exhaustive list, but here’s a glimpse of her achievements and that of her government:
Removal of WorkChoices, and legislating the Fair Work Act, PPL, and better superannuation and child care.
Pay equity for lower paid workers, mostly women.
Placing a price on carbon pollution, leading to an ETS in two years.
Implementing renewable energy initiatives to contribute to carbon reduction targets.
Introducing a minerals resource rent tax to share mining super profits across the community.
Sustaining a growing economy, the best in the developed world, during the most severe financial crisis for over seventy years, and the creation of a million jobs.
Adjusting pensions, carbon compensation, tax cuts and the school kids bonus.
Instituting infrastructure development: NBN, ports, roads, rail.
Introducing a package of health reforms: in hospitals, community health, aged, mental and cancer care, plain packaging of cigarettes, and healthcare administration.
Completing the first Murray-Darling water plan in a century.
Development of the ‘Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper.
Enhancement of relationships with the US, China and Indonesia.
Bringing about ground-breaking school education reforms culminating in the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding, and increased university places.
The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (DisabilityCare Australia), a crowning achievement.

She has set in place monumental reforms to vital parts of our national edifice, the likes of which we have never seen before. She has bequeathed these to our nation. This will be her legacy, a mantle she can wear with pride.

All of these accomplishments have taken place in a minority parliament where every move had to be negotiated with several parties, where many were fiercely resisted by the Coalition and in several instances by the Greens, where negotiating skills were paramount, and where obstruction and delaying tactics were daily barriers to progress. Julia Gillard achieved all this because of her persistence, her toughness, her patience, her courage and her determination to get done those pivotal reforms and this essential legislation, all focussed on making Australia an even more prosperous nation, one that was “stronger, smarter and fairer” to use her own words.

It is not just what she achieved that is so praiseworthy, it is the circumstances in which she did so, the environment she had to endure.

Has there ever been a prime minister who has had to cope, day after day, with the toxic, poisonous environment that enveloped her? There is no need to elaborate at length. You know it all.

Day after day the Opposition Leader and his Coalition colleagues heaped upon her personal abuse, contempt, vitriol, and nastiness. She was attacked with demeaning words that revealed disdain, disrespect and derision, often with sexist innuendo, until one day she could take no more. The feisty Julia burst out and flayed Tony Abbott with that memorable rebuttal; one captured on YouTube to the delight of two million viewers and women the world over.

Unremittingly, she was debased in the media, by the vile Pickering, the contemptible shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, and in her last interview, the despicable Howard Sattler. The mainstream media put out material every day that condemned her actions, ridiculed her ideas, criticized her every move, and found fault with her demeanour, her voice, her dress and her body shape, but seldom ever gave her any credit. The malicious Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman led the charge. The Murdoch media, joined latterly by Fairfax media, and sadly by elements of the ABC, clearly wanted her out of office and Tony Abbott’s Coalition in. Almost every news item portrayed that, sometimes subtly, but often stridently. The Press Gallery condemned what they characterized as her inability to get her message out, even her good messages, while steadfastly refusing to give them any oxygen.

Then there was the persistent sabotage of some in her own party from the moment she took office. Kevin Rudd and his supporters ran a relentless campaign of erosion of her authority, engaged the media disgracefully to pursue their agenda, and used poor polling to push its case for a change of leader. It is possible for strong people to endure for a long while despite life’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but internal hatred and disloyalty eventually takes its corrosive toll, as it did on 26 June when her colleagues, some of them previously loyal compatriots, turned on her and ousted her.

To me this was an unforgivable act of infamy and treachery that will forever stain the history of Labor.

The Victorian Women's Trust agrees. Last Friday, it placed full-page advertisements in four Australian newspapers praising Julia Gillard's achievements and condemning both Labor and the Liberal parties for their actions over the past three years; Kevin Rudd for orchestrating a treacherous ‘seek-and-destroy’ mission against Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott for his opportunistic appeals to people's prejudices.

Should you need more evidence about the poisonous environment in which PM Gillard had to work, do read The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister by Kerry-Anne Walsh (Allen & Unwin, 2013), a lucid account of all the forces pitted against her.

That Julia Gillard survived for three long years in the face of this tripartite hostility: from the Opposition, the Fourth Estate and her own colleagues, signals her strength of character, her resilience and her toughness. The way she departed showed for all to see, her poise, her grace and her gentleness.

There are many other attributes of Julia Gillard that I could explore, but I will end with her delightful personality. It would not have been surprising if she had become ‘bitter and twisted’ in the face of all the personal abuse and denigration that was heaped upon her every working day. But she retained her equanimity. Will we ever forget that marathon press conference where the Press Gallery finally exhausted itself asking her question after question about her days at Slater and Gordon twenty years ago until they had no more? Despite her despair of the Canberra Press Gallery, evidenced by her admonition: “Don’t write crap; it can’t be that hard”, she patiently took every question and ended smiling at them, as she had begun.

It was when she interacted with children, the disabled, the aged, and indigenous folk that gave us the most penetrating look into her soul, her inner being.

She was always smiling, often laughing with her infectious chuckle, always ready to embrace those around her, always concerned about the welfare of others, exhibited by her concern for the safety of Tony Abbott at the time of the Canberra restaurant ‘siege’ by aboriginal activists on Australia Day.

Despite all the visceral nastiness, the sexist taunts, the media vitriol, the Abbott attack dog snarling at her day after day, the disingenuousness and condemnation coming at her from every direction, the treachery in her own ranks, the ugly images painted by the cartoonists and the vile words of the shock jocks, she was able to smile, able to bounce back showing no desire for retribution, finally able to relinquish the most important political position in the nation with dignity, poise, and composure, and then sit on the back bench with a wistful smile on her face and with tears in her eyes as Rob Oakeshott told her in his valedictory speech that he had tweeted her on the night she was replaced: ‘Your father would have been proud of you’.

And so are we.

Thank you Julia.

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Doug Cameron, Kim Carr, Bob Carr, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Simon Crean, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Peter Garrett, Julia Gillard, Joe Hockey, Joseph Ludwig, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Who will Newspoll kill off next?

During this week past we saw Newspoll: The Killing Machine in lethal action. Ironically, it was her own party members who took the ammunition from Newspoll, aimed it at Julia Gillard’s heart, and killed her politically. Although polls are no more than a snapshot of public opinion, they have again become the determiner of the fate of a political leader. They are killing machines.

Politicians are obsessed with polls, place blind faith in their capacity to predict election results although they have no predictive value three months from an election, and have once more used them to make decisions about who is best equipped to lead them to victory. Writing in The Hoopla, Gabrielle Chan says: “It was the polls that fed the Rudd monster – the same polls that slew the beast in the beginning.

How have we got to where we are? As this is a multilayered issue, let’s peel back the layers and take a look at what’s underneath.

For a long while now, Newspoll, and indeed most of the other polls of voting preference and personal approval, have carried importance they do not deserve. Pollster Peter Lewis of Essential Vision tells us: "A poll never predicts the future. Anyone who says they know what the future holds is deluded". Aggregated polls that show trends are more useful though.

The polls have been adverse for Labor and Julia Gillard for a long while; they did not arrive out of a clear blue sky. They began falling when the Rudd saboteurs, bridling at the memory of Rudd’s abrupt and savage removal because of falling polls three years ago, began undermining the newly appointed leader, Julia Gillard. They derailed her 2010 election campaign at its very outset when they leaked damning information to Laurie Oakes who confronted her with it at the end of a National Press Club speech. The polls that began promisingly for her and Labor immediately after she became PM fell, and continued to fall. This result was a hung parliament and a minority government.

Because through most of the life of the Gillard Government the polls have been persistently unfavourable for her and Labor, their importance has been unreasonably amplified. Despite the doubts professional pollsters have expressed about the validity and reliability of opinion polls, media commentators have used them over and again to predict electoral disaster for Labor – a ‘wipeout’ that would reduce Labor to a ‘rump’. Politicians believed them. Labor has been dismayed and depressed for many months. Convinced that the commentators were right, Labor parliamentarians have agonized for a long while about what to do. The Rudd saboteurs became more and more determined to strike when the time was right to reinstate their man, whom they believed would give Labor a better chance.

As more and more Labor politicians became convinced that they must act to counter this existential threat, they reached a conclusion that the action needed was a change of leader, because no matter what else they had tried, the polls remained poor. Their apprehension got the better of them last Wednesday. Precipitated by a mysterious petition circulating among members, they used poor polling to insist on a Caucus meeting and thereby to remove their leader, Julia Gillard, believing the alternative, Kevin Rudd, would lift their rating.

The validity of that decision seemed to be borne out almost immediately by a Morgan Poll taken the evening of the change of leader. Gary Morgan documents it thus: Big swing to the ALP after Rudd returned as leader tonight. ALP 49.5% (up 5%) cf. L-NP 50.5% (down 5%) – but will it be enough? This special snap poll on Federal voting intention was conducted on the evening of June 26, 2013 via SMS interviewing after the result of the ALP leadership ballot was announced at 8 pm, among an Australia-wide cross-section of 2,530 Australian electors aged 18+, where of all electors surveyed a low 0.5% did not name a party. A national ReachTEL poll last Thursday, and a subsequent poll of selected seats in Sydney and Melbourne, and this morning’s Galaxy Poll showed a similar boost to the Labor vote.

Commenting on ABC 24 about the Morgan Poll, John Stirton, Research Director of Nielsen Polls, when asked whether polls were dictating who should be leader of our nation, answered that regrettably that seemed to be the case. They did so three years ago in the case of Kevin Rudd, and last week it was Julia Gillard. Stirton expressed the hope that this will not be the case in future. Even pollsters admit that this is a misuse of polls. He estimated that Labor could improve by up to ten points in primary votes with the change to Kevin Rudd, but questioned how long this would last. He felt that it might taper off near the election date, no matter when this was.

So here’s the rub: no matter how many warnings professional pollsters have given about the danger of using polls for decision making because of their lack of predictive power, media commentators have ignored the warnings and have used them to make predictions day after day, month after month. Politicians have lapped up what they have said and have used their predictions to make some of the most drastic decisions imaginable, such as changing leaders. It amazes me that seasoned politicians have allowed themselves to be captured so profoundly by the polls and their media spruikers. Then again, they may have been aware that they have been swept along by all the hype that polls spawn, but were fearful that as bad polls create more bad polls and generate a bandwagon effect, a self-perpetuating prophesy, voters might have become convinced that Labor had no hope and that they ought to back what the polls are indicating is the hot favourite, the Coalition.

But there’s more to this multilayered issue. Why have the polls, which have precipitated this crisis, been so consistently poor for Labor and Julia Gillard? The answer hides beneath another layer. Let’s peel it back.

As soon as Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, a concerted campaign began to demonize her. Built on what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott labeled a ‘lie’, and a ‘broken promise’ when she introduced a price on carbon despite her ‘no carbon tax’ pledge, shock jock Alan Jones coined ‘Ju-liar’, said she should be put in a hessian bag and dumped at sea, and arranged ‘carbon tax rallies’ that featured ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ banners in front of which Tony Abbott stood with two female colleagues. This was just the start of the demonization. The Fourth Estate took up the theme and inflamed it day after day, month after month, year after year. The Murdoch media was particularly venomous, intent on using the demonization of the PM to derail her Government and the Labor Party. I will not tire you with more details; you know them well. This was the genesis of PM Gillard’s unpopularity and the poor showing of Labor in the polls. If the media continually berates a leader, criticizes virtually everything she does, paints over and again a picture of her as an incompetent liar, in classic Goebbels fashion the people eventually believe it. When that picture is reinforced by Tony Abbott at every Question Time, at every parliamentary doorstop, at every visit to a factory or a shopping mall, when he repeatedly damages her credibility by insisting her Government is illegitimate, it become the given truth for most of the populace.

Given that after years of demonizing our first female PM, who has been categorized as a lying, incompetent witch, one warranting hate and loathing, it ought not be surprising that her standing in the community is poor, that her disapproval is so much higher than her approval ratings. A Salem witch trial of Julia Gillard has been going on for ages in the minds of many voters, and they have judged her guilty. Listen to the vox pops! Tony Abbott and his Fourth Estate sycophants have been spectacularly successful in prosecuting the trial of this ‘Canberra witch’.

There is another media issue, the old chestnut of Julia Gillard being unable ‘cut through’, to get her message across, to let people know what she ‘stands for’. Pundits ask why she is not ‘resonating with the community’. It is incredible to me that over and again media personalities repeat these accusations when it is the media itself that is largely responsible for this state of affairs. If there are parallel events, one about a major reform the Government has legislated, and the other about a trivial issue, it is the trivial that wins out every time. The media castigates her for being a poor communicator, of failing to tell the people the good things her Government is doing, and then steadfastly refuses to give these things any prominence. It is her glasses, or her hair, or her jackets, or her tripping over, or her photo in Women’s Weekly that gets on the front page, while details of vital reforms, or the great economic state of our nation, are relegated to page seven. Yet the media has the temerity to criticize her inability to ‘cut through’. What hypocrisy! Or perhaps it is simply blindness to its own role. Maybe though it is deliberate media disingenuousness.

I can hear some of you saying: here he is blaming the media again. You are right. I am blaming the media because they are manifestly blameworthy. Only someone blind to what is going on could conclude otherwise. But this is not to say that PM Gillard and her Government are blameless. Moves have been made that have not turned out well; judgments have not been universally correct; ideas have not always been brilliant. That ought not surprise us given the complexity of governing in a minority parliament. Yet it is one in which around six hundred pieces of legislation have been passed with 87% bipartisan support, leaving just 13% in dispute; where major reforms have been enacted in education, health and disability, communications, infrastructure, water, defence, industrial relations and paid maternity leave, and important advances have been made in international relations, all with the oversight of PM Gillard. Yet she is portrayed as an incompetent Canberra witch.

There is another aspect – the gender issue. I do not intend to labour this here. It is well documented in the writings of Anne Summers, author of The Misogyny Factor, and writers on The Hoopla such as Gabrielle Chan. There is no doubt that being a female has made political life much harder for Julia Gillard. It seems that many men in this country cannot abide a female PM; they are unable to adjust to a female being in charge, when it has always been a male. It’s a man’s world after all!

So it is in the deepest recesses of this multi-layered issue that the core cause of the poor polling lives and festers – a virulent and persistent media onslaught against our first female PM the like of which we have not seen before, which has led to a level of demonization and deprecation once reserved for the Salem witches.

To recap, beginning from the core of the issue, the layers are: denigration and demonization of PM Gillard, leading to the creation of a damaging image of her in the minds of the electorate, leading to poor polling, leading to a media prediction that electoral disaster lies ahead with Julia Gillard as PM, leading to this prediction being embraced by Labor parliamentarians, leading to the radical action of removing Australia’s first female PM and replacing her with what the polls say is an electorally popular male.

This is the rationale behind the move to replace her, but the modus operandi of the Rudd saboteurs has been both destructive and despicable. For Labor members to deliberately and surreptitiously undermine a Labor Government and its leader over a three year period, and to sometimes publically ridicule her, is unforgivable disloyalty. I’m thinking of the smirking Joel Fitzgibbon, and the blustering Kim Carr and Doug Cameron. And then to follow this with attempt after attempt to dislodge PM Gillard, at first abortive, and finally successful, is contemptible. It is distressing that this level of treachery has been rewarded. I deplore these actions and hope I will never see such subversion, disloyalty and destructiveness again.

Those of us who have supported Julia Gillard so fervently are appalled at the way she has been treated, and lament her fate. We have lost an outstanding politician, and a strong and steadfast female warrior. We commiserate her untimely exit from public life and hope she will reappear in another influential role that will engage her outstanding talent and her strength of character. We shall miss her bubbling personality, her strength, her courage, her resoluteness, her devotion, her graciousness, her capacity to get things done against the odds and bring about much needed traditional Labor reforms, and her determination to stand up for women’s rights.

Let’s return now to the subject of this piece: Who will Newspoll kill off next? If polls have destroyed two Federal leaderships in the last three years, is that where the destruction will stop? Who else might Newspoll kill?

This piece postulates that other Federal leaders are vulnerable. What if the polls reverse after Rudd’s installation, and Labor stocks rise or even surpass that of the Coalition? With time running down to the election, how will Coalition members feel about their leader, Tony Abbott? Will they continue to believe that he can deliver them victory? What happens as his popularity slips and falls below that of Rudd as preferred prime minister? He has been unpopular with the voters for three years now with his unpopularity exceeding his popularity, although lately his popularity had picked up a little. But what if that now worsens? There are other leaders in the wings, most notably Malcolm Turnbull, who consistently has been more popular than Abbott, and recently preferred by twice as many voters as Abbott. When would Coalition members, like their Labor counterparts, feel they ought to ditch Abbott for Turnbull? It would be a big reversal of their loyalty to Abbott, but if such reversal can occur in Labor circles, why not in the Coalition?

The recent poll results will already be creating uncertainty and doubt in Coalition minds. Minders will be reviewing Abbott’s messages, perhaps asking whether the three word slogans will do during the election campaign. Abbott will be re-groomed, given some new words he can repeat from memory, words that are memorable, although meaningless because of their lack of specificity. Minders will fret about how Abbott will manage in a vigorous debate with Rudd on serious policy issues, a debate Rudd has already invited on economic issues. Rudd has panache that Abbott lacks, as well as policy smarts, which Abbott doesn’t enjoy. Because Abbott has avoided solid policy work, preferring mantras that he repeats like a Buddhist monk, policy debates promise to be a big problem for him and the Coalition. Close observers have recognized for ages his policy paucity as a major vulnerability; now it threatens to be exposed for all to see, for voters to see his vacuity. How long would it take for the electorate to have their eyes opened, and their approval of him plummet?

As last week came to an end, while Kevin Rudd was in full flight at a media conference on Friday, answering dozens of questions from a rowdy bunch of journalists, Coalition minders were scrambling to prepare a response to the emergence of another Rudd Prime Ministership. Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop and Warren Truss were sent out to recite disparaging statements about Rudd, all intended for the airwaves. They sounded pathetic. How much impact such negative stuff will have, especially when Rudd is now enjoying positive acceptance from much of the electorate, is debatable.

I can see a wave of panic spreading across the Coalition camp as they realize that they are now in for a close contest at the election and a challenging combatant to cope with beforehand. I can see Tony Abbott and his minders wondering how to deal with a resurgent Kevin Rudd, how to counter his newly-won popularity, how to respond to his exuberant rhetoric, and with a deep feeling of apprehension, how to match him in a policy debate.

I can imagine the sinking feeling that will oppress their souls as they look at each new poll, and most of all, the giant killer Newspoll, to see how they are faring.

I can see the Honourable Leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Anthony John Abbott, with his hands eagerly outstretched to grasp the coveted keys to The Lodge, fearfully wondering if he will see his long-held dream evaporate, wondering if HE will be the one that Newspoll will kill off next.

What do you think?

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, Doug Cameron, Kim Carr, Bob Carr, Simon Crean, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Julia Gillard, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Robert McClelland, Christine Milne, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Newspoll: The Killing Machine

In the following thirty-six hours the next Newspoll will be published. If it is as poor a result for Labor as was last week's Nielsen Poll, the leadership frenzy will reach an even more feverish pitch. Frantic media packs will jostle to assail every politician entering and leaving parliament, thrusting microphones into their faces, and insisting they declare their allegiance to Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or at least take a punt on whether a leadership challenge is on, and who is likely to win. The words uttered by the key players will be analyzed endlessly for nuance. Every news bulletin on radio or TV will be embellished with phrases such as 'another bad poll for Labor has renewed/fuelled/rekindled/heightened leadership speculation', with clips of comments from Labor politicians at doorstops, clips of Tony Abbott, with nodding supporters in the background, sagely reminding us how dysfunctional, divided and chaotic the Gillard Government is, and Christopher Pyne emitting his usual venom outside Parliament. It is as predictable as the sun rising in the East.

The press will have a field day. Dennis Shanahan will be emboldened to predict an even greater electoral disaster for Labor, Paul Kelly will be more pontifical than usual in telling us why, and other News Limited journalists will report the findings gleefully, and in every sordid detail. The predictive value of the poll will be assumed, as it has been for two years now, and to give the result some statistical authenticity, the result will be stated to be 'outside the margin of error'.

Should the result be much the same as the last Newspoll, the media response will be less strident. What Labor could expect would be one of Shanahan's favourite phrases: 'flat-lining', or words to the effect that Labor 'has failed to get a bounce out of Gonski', or any other piece of legislation the pundits believe ought to have given it one.

But if the result were to be better for Labor than Nielsen or the last Newspoll, it would need to be vastly better to attract any acknowledgement of an improvement. And to counter any better result, we will be reminded that the Coalition 'still has an election-winning lead', or that ‘it would still win in a landslide', or that 'Labor would still lose (insert number) of seats at an election, should it be held today'.

So whatever happens this coming week with Newspoll, the result will be painted as bad for Labor, and should it be much, much better by any chance, it will be categorized as a 'rouge poll'.

Nothing I have asserted so far will come as a surprise to any reader. I write these words simply to underscore the extraordinary influence polls of voting intention and personal approval have on our political dialogue through all forms of the Fourth Estate. They actually create the dialogue.

This coming week, Newspoll will be used as a killing machine, as it has been for many years.

Of course it was used as a killing machine in the dying days of the Howard Government, although not as powerfully as it is now. And let's acknowledge that it is not the only one. The Nielsen poll too has potency as a killing machine, as we saw last week. It precipitated a furious frenzy in the Canberra Press Gallery that went on for several days, until it became apparent that no leadership challenge was in the offing, whereupon the frenzy abated for a while. Of course there are regular Galaxy polls that seem to emerge at weekends that give good copy to political journalists for the Sunday papers, and now automated ReachTEL polls are gaining prominence and are given publicity in News Limited media. Those aiming at the heart of Labor use them all as killing machines.

But there are other polls, some longstanding. Morgan Polls have been around since 1941. Morgan conducts both face-to-face and telephone polls. The last one did not replicate the results of the Nielsen poll. Under a heading: Female support rises strongly for the Government after Howard Sattler interview with Prime Minister, Morgan wrote: “Today’s Morgan Poll shows the ALP closing the gap on the L-NP with the L-NP (53.5%, down 2.5% in a week) cf. ALP (46.5%, up 2.5%) after Perth radio host Howard Sattler interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard last Thursday and questioned the Prime Minister about her partner’s sexuality. Sattler was subsequently sacked on Friday afternoon by Fairfax Radio and the Morgan Poll which was interviewed after this point shows a clear swing back to the Government. A Fairfax-Nielsen poll released overnight showed the L-NP (57%) cf. ALP (43%) on a two-party preferred basis. However, it is important to note the Fairfax-Nielsen poll was conducted between Thursday and Saturday last week (June 13-15, 2013) which means many of the Fairfax-Nielsen interviews were conducted before the full impact of the Howard Sattler interview and subsequent sacking was known."

Did any of you see the Morgan Poll reported in the Fourth Estate? The only place I saw it was in the Fifth Estate, in Independent Australia. Isn't that strange? No it isn't. Fairfax would not want to diminish the potency of its own killing machine by giving credence to a poll that was at variance with its own, especially the last poll that placed Labor in such a poor light. In fact isn't it strange that we almost never see Morgan Polls given any airing in the Fourth Estate.

And there is the weekly Essential Poll that uses a methodology different from other polls, and aggregates two weeks' polling into each week's result. On June 17 it showed the same result as the previous week: 54/46 TPP, with no dip that could be attributed to the previous week's events. Of course next week it might. But where in the Fourth Estate do you see Essential Polls reported? Both Morgan and Essential seem to be personae non gratae within the Fourth Estate. The only time Essential Media Communications gets exposure is when its Director, Peter Lewis, appears on the ABC’s The Drum.

Polls, Newspoll particularly, and to some extent Nielsen Polls and Galaxy Polls, are used as killing machines by those who use them to attack political parties. This is not to imply that the polls are wrong, or unprofessionally conducted, much less rigged. But there seems little doubt that in the hands of journalists they can be, and are used as killing machines aimed at the party on the decline and ipso facto as boosters to the party on the rise. Polls supply the heavy ammunition; journalists fire it at their target. For the contemporary Fourth Estate, this suits their purpose because the polls match the stories they want to write.

What this piece argues is that commercial polls of voting intention dictate the political dialogue by allowing proprietors, editors and journalists to interpret them as they wish, and thereby create the stories they want to disseminate.

But let me address an issue that infuriates journalists. When anyone suggests they are 'making up stories', or that their stories are just ‘a media beat up', they become highly indignant, insist that their stories have real sources, that the information upon which they base their stories is real, neither imagined nor made up, and that they are simply reporting to the public the information they have sourced, which they insist is their sacred duty, as 'the public has the right to know'. So let's be clear, journalists are fed tidbits, journalists do fossick out bits and pieces of information, and journalists do have their 'sources'. That is not in dispute. What is debatable is the quality of the information they solicit or are offered, that is, its validity and its reliability. Sometimes it is of high quality, and enables them to write important articles. There are many examples we can all recall. It is when the information is of doubtful quality or simply wrong that articles derived from it are suspect or disingenuous.

But even when the information is valid and reliable, it is how the journalist evaluates its importance that determines how the story is written. A tiny piece of information, no matter how valid and reliable, does not a major story make, yet that is what the Fourth Estate too often dishes up to us. Corridor whispers, an overheard comment, a story exchanged between journalists at their favourite drinking hole, seem too often to be the basis for a big story, a prediction of major importance. Reflect for a moment on how many times senior journalists have predicted PM Gillard's political demise, how often they have suggested she step down. They still are! The media, becoming desperate as time for a change runs out, is pulling out all the stops to dislodge our PM. This weekend, Andrew Holden, editor of The Age, perhaps miffed that PM Gillard did not fall on her sword after his Nielsen poll last Monday, is now somewhat arrogantly insisting in an editorial that she must stand aside ‘for the sake of the nation’.

How many times have we been told that she will be gone by Christmas - the killing season – or by Easter, or by the time parliament rises, or when the caucus next meets, or when it has its last meeting, or by whatever date the journalist conjures up, and in any year you care to imagine. Yet she is still standing - 'she won't lie down and die'. Maybe she will meet the fate that has been predicted for almost three years now in the three months before election day. But so far predictions have all been wrong. But like stopped clocks that are bound to be right twice a day, journalists continue to hope that eventually they might be right.

Journalists in the Fourth Estate often place too much reliance on unreliable information, on invalid intelligence, on at times deliberately false information fed to them by people with a subterranean political agenda into which they allow themselves to be sucked, and thereby conned. Faulty information would not be so much of a problem to them if they sat on it until it could be checked for its validity and reliability, an exercise good journalists carry out routinely, but instead they take up their megaphones and shout their paltry and sometimes shonky messages for all to hear, and they go on doing this time and again despite them being wrong over and over. And when something really important does actually happen, they often miss it, as they did when they missed Kevin Rudd's removal until almost the last minute, and completely missed Bob Carr's appointment as Foreign Minister.

By the way, we can’t let journalists off ‘scot-free’ on the charge that they don’t make stories up. Reflect on the second half of last week. There were no more polls, and as far as I am aware no comments from Labor that could be mined for flecks of gold, yet Leigh Sales managed to spend most of her Thursday 7.30 interview of Craig Emerson fishing for leadership tidbits; Tony Jones’ Lateline featured an unnecessarily convoluted piece by Tom Iggulden that explored what might happen constitutionally if leadership changed; and on Friday, ABC news picked up on words Kevin Rudd used on Seven’s Sunrise when asked about a potential bid for leadership: ”I don’t believe there are any circumstances in which that would happen”, and wove them into a story that this was a less vehement denial, and therefore significant! Can you believe it? Yes you can. Journalists do make up some stories, and they do ‘beat up’ others. Read what Michelle had to say about the Leigh Sales interview in her blog piece: Dear Leigh Sales. I’m sure many would echo her sentiments.

It is the rush to the megaphone to shout their stories on every medium they can access without proper checking, or simply the rush to shout a story they have made out of nothing, which characterizes far too much political journalism today, and brings it into disrepute. Is it any wonder the public holds journalists in such low regard, and levels at them accusations of poor quality journalism, of 'making stories up', and of 'media beat ups'?

We all know though that there is another reason for the rush to the megaphone. Journalists, fearful about their own jobs, are mindful of the need to please, or at least not seriously upset, their proprietor and editor. They know their political agenda, which for most of the Fourth Estate seems to be the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacement of it with a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott. Every story about leadership destabilization, every story about PM Gillard being replaced, every related adverse event, is grist to the News Limited and Fairfax mills. So megaphone journalism aimed at discrediting PM Gillard and her Government is OK by these media outlets, no matter how unreliable and flimsy it is. It adds inexorably to the poor image of the PM and the Government it has been creating for years.

Let's return to the killing machines, which for News Limited is its heavy weapon, Newspoll, the most lethal killing machine of all.

Try this exercise in your imagination. Reflect on how different political journalism would be if there were no opinion polls. I realize that means exploring a fantasy world that will never become reality, but bear with me.

Ask yourself what journalists would write about leadership without polls results to underpin their stories. It is the results of the polls of voting intention and personal approval, and comparisons of the popularity of potential leaders (Gillard/Rudd and Abbott/Turnbull) that give them the material they require to write about leadership. It is the poll of who would save the most seats for Labor that energises journalist's comments about leadership. When the TPP is going against a party, particularly the one in power, journalists jump on it because, to use the words they use habitually, it 'calls into question' the position of the leader, and ‘renews/fuels/ignites/heightens leadership speculation’. If the leader is less popular than the contender, as has been the case with Julia Gillard versus Kevin Rudd, if the challenger might save more seats, that adds to the speculation. If there were no poll results, there would be no leadership speculation, as indeed is the case between polls, when speculation subsides. But the day the poll comes out, especially if it is Newspoll, which seems to have assumed superior status among the many polls, the media: print, radio and TV is ablaze with strident recitation of the results and the dire implications. It's great copy for journalists, hungry for a scoop.

Without the polls, they would have to undertake real journalism; they would have to seek sources, solicit information from those whose opinion is worthy, check its veracity, double check, analyze what the sources told them, and reach a considered conclusion about the status of the leader in question. That's arduous work; it involves 'working the phones' and 'wearing out boot leather', as their predecessors once did. Poll results obviate this weary toil. Writing up poll results is child's play, and any interpretation can be placed on any result, depending on what story the journalist wants to write. We saw Dennis Shanahan's convolutions in the dying days of the Howard Government, when, no matter how poor the results were for John Howard, Dennis could always find a ray of hope to head his analysis.

There are other polls, carried out privately by pollsters on behalf of political parties and their supporters. These are never reported publically, but are regularly ‘leaked’. The fact that they are not subject to the same methodological scrutiny as commercial polls means that their validity and reliability are not questioned. The fact that those who commission these polls choose to leak them to the media suggests that the leaking is a tactic to advantage one side or disadvantage the other, or both. That alone calls into question their veracity. While some question the validity of commercial polls on the grounds of methodology, for example the use of landlines versus mobile phones, I believe commercial pollsters are proficient and attempt to do their polling professionally, striving for representative samples of sufficient size. On the other hand, private polling, or at least its reporting, is suspect, as is the output from focus groups. I place no store on reports in the Fourth Estate of private polling.

Of course, polls would have lesser influence on political dialogue if Labor members declined to engage in public or private conversation with insistent journalists hungry to extract a morsel they might be able to fashion into a story. Although they know that whatever they say journalists will use it in whatever way they prefer, politicians seem to be unable or unwilling to tell them to get lost. And even if they stay mute, the headline is: ‘X refused to confirm or deny’, or ‘avoided the question’, leaving the news consumer thinking that something suspect is going on.

Some Labor politicians, the Rudd saboteurs, are deliberately obtuse, and repeatedly feed the story of a Rudd revival to eager journalists, all the more so when Kevin Rudd’s popularity comes out much higher with the public than Julia Gillard’s. They are a destructive force that gives journalists the tidbits and rumors, true or otherwise, that they crave, and do so for their own selfish purpose. Some of the others, who pander to the press by responding to questions and then do so incompetently, seem to be plain stupid, unaware of, or careless about the damage they are doing. Fortunately, there are those who give unequivocal messages about leadership such as Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and Peter Garrett, to name just a few. If only the others would emulate them.

So while we can correctly blame the media for the so-called journalism they offer, we need to acknowledge that a few malcontents do feed them bits and pieces from which they construct their stories. What is reprehensible is that most journalists endow such morsels with a credibility they do not deserve, and don’t bother to check their veracity before enthusiastically taking up their megaphones hoping for a scoop.

Stories about poll results have a profound effect over time. While one bad poll result takes its toll, bad result after bad enables journalists to paint a more damaging picture of the party that is lagging – one of a party that is doomed, fated to lose in a landslide, to be reduced to a mere ‘rump’. Add to that the long-standing media narrative that the Gillard Government is ‘the worst government in Australian history’, indeed ‘a bad government getting worse’, that PM Gillard is an incompetent, untrustworthy liar, who makes one mistake after another, that her popularity is sinking inexorably, that she is dragging Labor down to a catastrophic defeat, and you have a vivid picture of a certain loser, who by that account deserves to lose. This image feeds into the next poll and reinforces the negativity. When that poll turns out poorly, the vicious circle continues. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser, so the downward trend is amplified, again and again. This is what so many News Limited journalists want, as do many in Fairfax.

In case you think I’m in a minority in my view that polls are killing machines in the hands of antagonistic journalists, read what Letitia McQuade had to say on Independent Australia in Gillard, polls, porkies and popularity. Read this too in The Conscience Vote: Dear media, write about something else, and Truth Seeker’s Murdoch’s poll machines stuck on spin cycle, and Jeff Sparrow’s piece in The Guardian: What is the Gillard v Rudd civil war all about?.

This piece describes and deplores the malevolent influence that opinion polls of voting intention and popularity have on political discourse in this country. Poll results are ammunition for adversarial journalists to fire at politicians and parties they oppose. They use them ruthlessly to wound and kill their opponents. They use them to reinforce the stories they write, stories too often based on whispers and questionable intelligence; they use them to create a repetitive story of incompetence, of failure, of a fate worse than death at the upcoming election, of a party that must be decisively discarded. Polls are used to manipulate minds in the desired direction; with every negative poll that arrives, the more the voters are persuaded in that direction.

Sadly, amongst all this, policy issues vital to this country’s future, and that of all its citizens, are diluted or simply ignored. How on earth can the voters decide?

In the hands of journalists polls are killing machines, and the most potent of all is News Limited’s Newspoll. And they are killing not just politicians and parties, they are killing the intelligent policy debate every strong democracy needs.

What do you think?

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Tanya Plibersek, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The culture of disrespect

In the week just gone there was an extraordinary coincidence of events that starkly reminded us of just how much disrespect contaminates our society, most of it directed towards women. It is a scourge that dates back for centuries, one though that the forward-looking fondly believed was losing ground as more enlightened attitudes appeared to be emerging. What happened last week calls that hope into question.

When Julia Gillard made her speech at the launch of Labor's Women for Gillard campaign in Sydney last Tuesday, she let surge into the open the simmering undercurrent of sexism and discrimination against women that we all know continues to afflict our society, one that many prefer not to see or acknowledge.

Albeit unintentionally, as if to confirm her point, later that day at the post-match press conference after the Socceroos four-nil win against Jordan, coach Holger Osieck set the ball rolling when he made a sexist slur that "women should shut up in public". The following day Jason Hickson, president of the Cessnock Hunter Young Liberals branch, tweeted: "Fairly certain Socceroos coach was referring to @JuliaGillard last night . . . not women in general. Heres [sic] to Holger if that's [sic] the case! #auspol." This earned him suspension from the Liberal Party by NSW Liberal Party state director Mark Neeham.

The PM’s message was that Labor supported women in a way unmatched by the Coalition, and that if Tony Abbott should become PM, women would “once again [be] banished from the centre of Australia's political life”, reinforcing that with her claim that ‘men in blue ties’ would marginalize women. Labor’s front bench of one woman in three against the Coalition’s less than one in five, goes some way to validating her assertion.

She also put abortion back on the agenda with: “We don't want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better”

Fuming with righteous indignation, Julie Bishop quickly labelled her speech as indulging in the “base politics of fear and division”, of “waging a gender war”, insisting it was “patronising and insulting”, and “a speech not worthy of a prime minister”.

The reaction to PM Gillard’s speech among women was mixed. Some felt uneasy that the gender issue had been raised in a political context, and that abortion had been resurrected as an issue. Even some feminists and commenters on Hoopla expressed concern, some dismay. Of course, male columnists and several female, notably Janet Albrechtsen, were delighted to agree with Julia Gillard’s critics. Even a couple of Labor backbenchers expressed concern.

However, in PM right to put gender on the agenda in the Sydney Morning Herald, Leslie Cannold, Melbourne academic and writer, and President of Reproductive Choice Australia, pointed out that Tony Abbott had made many statements about abortion: “I think it is a tragedy that we have as many abortions as we do…” and “I'm a bit like Bill Clinton…who said that he thought it should be safe, legal and rare. And I underline 'rare'”. In Abbott’s words, a last resort.

Cannold goes on to quote Abbott again:“I certainly have always said that the whole issue here was to try to ensure that we empowered women…[and] gave women in a very difficult position all the support they needed to make what was for them the best possible choice”. (For those confused by that gobbledygook, that was Abbott signalling to his anti-choice supporters that his government could return to the Pregnancy Support Measures of the Howard era designed – and here I quote Abbott – to “reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy support counselling”.)” Cannold fears that the shaming and stigmatizing of the one in three Australian women who have an abortion will escalate under an Abbott government.

Abbott’s unsuccessful attempt when he was Health Minister to assume control of the use of abortion drug RU 486 is another indication of his past attitude to abortion.

On the Jon Faine show on ABC 774 radio on Friday, Cannold said she had looked for any sign that Abbott had changed his attitude to abortion, but had seen none. She believes that Julia Gillard was right in raising this issue.

So unless Abbott has undergone an epiphany on the subject of abortion, expect that an Abbott government would take a regressive attitude.

No sooner had her speech hit the headlines than, seemingly out of the blue, a report emerged of a highly offensive menu at a dinner for twenty in March to raise funds for endorsed Liberal candidate for Fisher, Mal Brough. It described our PM as a quail dish, elaborating on her physical features and her genitals in a deeply odious way. Descriptions on the same menu of two Labor males, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, although grossly rude, carried no sexual connotations. Tony Abbott and other Liberals quickly denounced this sexist attack on Julia Gillard, and Mal Brough apologized. Joe Hockey, a special guest at the dinner, said he never saw the menu, and came over all offended, accusing the PM of calling him a ‘fat man’ in parliament, and insinuating that her reaction to what the journalistic fraternity now insist on calling ‘menugate’, was unfairly directed at him.

Then it emerged that Brisbane businessman Joe Richards had written the offensive menu. He passed it off as ‘a lighthearted joke’, which he had created with his son, a joke that he never intended to be made public. But when Chef David Carter posted it on Facebook it became very public. Subsequently Abbott declared that the menu had never left the kitchen. It was stylishly printed though, and as Brough immediately apologized for the menu, describing it as "deeply regrettable, offensive and sexist", it is curious that he did this, as now denies knowledge of the menu.

In the light of the Richards story, instead of trying to weasel the Coalition out of the firing line, as Abbott would characteristically have done, he suggested that it was time for everyone to ‘move on’. I wonder how much he really knows about ‘menugate’?

News Limited papers, by attempting to connect Labor figures with Richards, are now trying to limit the damage this episode has done to the Coalition, I suspect in vain.

I expect we will never know the full story, but the fact that the menu was for a Liberal fund-raiser, suggests the involvement of Liberal supporters, and will reflect adversely on them.

Whatever the true story, the undeniable fact is that this menu reflects deep-seated disrespect for our PM and deeply sexist attitudes towards her. No one has defended the menu, and politicians from all parties have been outspoken in condemnation. It is yet another example of the culture of disrespect that afflicts politics today, disrespect that is often directed to the nation’s first female Prime Minister.

As Julia Gillard's speech was being dissected and critiqued, another event intervened: General David Morrison, Head of the Australian Army, reported on an extensive study of sexism in the Army, revealing investigations into as many as 90 serving officers who might be guilty of producing what he called "highly inappropriate material demeaning women" distributed across the Internet and Defence's email networks. He added: "If this is true, then the actions of these members are in direct contravention of every value the Australian Army stands for." He bluntly told those involved that if they could not accept the Army’s values they should ‘get out’. Much more will be revealed about this scandal in the weeks ahead. Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that the culture that allowed such actions to occur was not recent; it was decades old and represented a major eradication challenge for the Army.

Although not related to the political events of the week, the Morrison report highlighted the widespread nature of disrespect for women in the Army, one likely reflected in the community generally.

Then came the most infamous event of all, the interview of PM Gillard by shock jock Howard Sattler on radio 6PR in Perth on Thursday evening.

His insensitive probing at the very beginning of an arranged interview with the PM into the sexual preference of the PM’s partner Tim Mathieson with the blunt: “Tim’s gay”, and his persistent questioning along these lines, has brought him universal and strident condemnation from politicians, commentators and the media, including such outspoken shock jocks as Derryn Hinch, and even Ray Hadley. Alan Jones seems not to have commented; I suppose it’s a case of ‘people in glass houses…’. Sattler was subsequently suspended and sacked; Fairfax apologized. Sattler was unrepentant; ‘he had no regrets’. So much for his attitude to Julia Gillard, whom he regards as ‘fair game’! There’s no need to go into details; you probably know them already after all the publicity this event attracted. If you want to, take a look at the video in this piece.

What is important is that here is a radio personality of long standing, who thought it was appropriate to be grossly disrespectful to the nation’s Prime Minister. Would he have been so had the PM been male? Would he have asked about the sexual preference of the PM’s partner? You know the answer.

Julia Gillard’s fear was that an interview like this might deter young women from undertaking a career in public life and in politics.

On Friday’s episode of ABC’s
The Drum, where there was condemnation by all the panellists, Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Victorian Women's Trust, and author of A Switch in Time – restoring respect to Australian politics, added her words of denunciation about the disrespectful and sexist attacks on our PM.

Anne Summers reinforced Julia Gillard’s assertions about the paucity of women in the Abbott team, and his longstanding attitude towards abortion.

On Friday’s PM on ABC radio, Martin Cuddihy interviewed a Sydney hairdresser who said: “It's really rude to talk to the Prime Minister about her personal life", and when asked what he thought about the implication that because the Prime Minister's partner is a hairdresser, he's gay, he replied: “Really I don't know man, but I feel really sorry about the Prime Minister, the way he talked to her and she felt a little bit embarrassed and I think this is really rude and bad.”

Cuddihy then turned to Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, who when asked her opinion, said: “I think what it really was about was yet another example of Julia Gillard being interrogated in very intimate personal ways that we have not see any other politician being interrogated before and being slandered and slurred and derided on the basis of personal intimate things.” When asked what Sattler was trying to ask about her, she replied “He was basically trying to imply what kind of a man would be interested in being with Julia Gillard. What kind of a person is she? Is she desirable? The inference, of course, from his perspective, is no and therefore it's a slight on her sexuality and her appeal and her desirability and what kind of a woman she is". In Rosewarne’s view, the thrust of Sattler’s question went well beyond the ‘gay partner’ query.

On the ABC’s AM yesterday, former Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, expressed her outrage at Sattler’s questions and went onto say “Men are rarely questioned on their spouses or their partners, and nor should they be. And the question to ask is why is this done to women? And the answer is because we still see women as appendages to males and not standing there with their own rights, with the capacities to exercise power.” She too suffered at the hands of the media; cartoonists regularly depicted her in a polka dot dress, sometimes so offensively that her daughter would advise her: “Don’t look at the cartoons today Mum!”

There’s no need for any more evidence about what has been a week characterized by one sexist episode after another, unrelated, but pointing to the worrisome residue of sexist behaviour in our community, in these examples directed towards service women, women in general, and PM Julia Gillard in particular. Her speech on Tuesday along these lines, criticized by many, including feminists, seems to have been vindicated by subsequent events: ‘menugate’, the Army scandal, and the Sattler interview.

How has this come about? It seems as if all the efforts of those who have fought for equal rights and recognition for women for so long, still have a battle ahead of them.

Who is responsible?

The Army scandal appears to be the persistence of a culture of disrespect towards women from Army men. The recent exposure follows a long line of similar, although perhaps less pervasive episodes. It points to widespread cultural problems that so far have not been addressed, or have defied correction. This time, General Morrison seems determined to root out the offenders and cleanse the Army of this scourge. We hope he succeeds.

But what of the poisonous sexism and disrespect that pervades our body politic, where menus demeaning the PM in an offensively sexual way are printed, where she is subject to grossly inappropriate questioning by a Perth shock jock? Who is responsible for that?

As in all complex issues there are multiple factors. No one person or group is wholly responsible. But to avoid looking for some of the culprits is simply a copout. The Fourth Estate will not even attempt to ask why we are in this position, nor will it look for the perpetrators. Only the Fifth Estate will dare.

If we look for how the level of disrespect and sexism has come about in Federal politics, the first place to look is at the leadership of the Coalition.

Look at the track record of the Leader of the Opposition. Here is a man with a long past history of aggression and disrespect towards women who have defeated him in political combat. Here is the man who punched the wall near Barbara Ramjan after she defeated him in a student politics battle, who kicked in a glass door after another defeat. His supporters argue that was many years go when he was at university, but we have seen similar behaviour more recently. Ever since he was outmanoeuvered by Julia Gillard in the negotiations with the Independents and she became PM in a minority government, Abbott has called her prime ministership, and her Government ‘illegitimate’. He still insists the prize should have been his. As he has done in the past, he has set himself on a path of destruction of her and her Government.

This path is littered with demeaning insults. He has persistently used the terms ‘she’, ‘her’, and ‘this Prime Minister’ to diminish her standing. She is not the only object of his disrespect. He persists in calling the parliamentary Speaker, who has requested that term be used, ‘Madam Speaker’, just as he called the student chairperson who defeated him back in student days ‘Chair thing’, a sign of his disrespect that continued all year.

In parliament he attacks her like a rabid dog, over and again, as do his front bench: Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop. Read Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, and take a look at their faces contorted with rage, hatred and disrespect. Just this week, Joe Hockey tweeted about Julia Gillard: “She has never deserved respect, and will never receive it.” Think of that for a moment before anyone tries to argue that Abbott and Co. have not generated disrespect for the most senior political figure in this nation, for the high office of Prime Minister. Of course they have.

It was Abbott’s echoing in parliament of shock jock Alan Jones’ slur that her father had ‘died of shame’ because of his daughter’s behaviour, which precipitated her famous and inspiring so-called ‘misogyny speech’ that found favour all around the world, especially with women, who understood exactly what she was saying.

At doorstops, Abbott endlessly repeats his mantras: ‘the worst Prime Minister in Australian political history’, presiding over ‘the worst government in our history’, and ‘a bad government, getting worse’. He paints her as grossly incompetent, as having poor judgement, and as an untrustworthy liar. Both his frontbench and backbench faithfully echo his mantras with almost religious fervour, as do his media sycophants, uncritical of him or his disrespectful assertions. He can rely on Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, Chris Kenny, Janet Albrechtsen and their ilk to back him in with all his disrespectful rhetoric.

Alan Jones’ infamous ‘Juliar’ interview, his ‘put her in a hessian bag and take her out to sea’, and his repeated vilification of our PM in the most offensive terms, have created an aura of disrespect for her and her position. Ray Hadley has joined in the demonization. Tony Abbott, Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella standing in front of ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs at an Alan Jones’ sponsored carbon tax rally in Canberra screamed disrespect for PM Gillard.

Is it any wonder that there is so much disrespect abroad that even school kids feel able to throw sandwiches at her?

We ought not be surprised that journalists and shock jocks feel free to ask her insulting and demeaning questions.

I lay most of the disrespect directed to PM Julia Gillard squarely at the feet of the would-be PM, Tony Abbott, and the rest of it at his front bench, his back bench, and his media supporters. By creating an aura of disrespectfulness, day after day, month after month, year after year, they have given ‘permission’ to every Tom, Dick and Harry to do the same, from school children throwing salami sandwiches at our PM, to shock jocks throwing insolent questions at her. If Abbott and Co had drawn a firm line below such disrespectful talk and action, if they had insisted that politics should be above this type of behaviour, or to use a favourite Abbott phrase: ‘We are better than this’, the gross level of disrespect that exists and has been exhibited so grotesquely last week, would not have occurred. Prove me wrong.

You won’t see anything like this in the Fourth Estate. You know why.

What do you think?

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Tanya Plibersek, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

What is the role of political blogsites?

Political blogsites proliferate almost by the week. Many reside in the Fifth Estate. While a few declare their political orientation overtly, most do not. It is possible though to ascertain this by reading the pieces they post. While some purport to be ‘balanced’, ready to criticize any or all political parties, or politicians of any complexion, these seem to be in a minority. Some sites attempt balance by using a variety of authors who hold different views. Individual authors though usually have an established position; it is uncommon to find an author who critiques and criticizes all parties and politicians with equal vigour. Most blogs seem to lean to one side or the other, and some, sponsored by the parties themselves, or closely associated bodies, such as the Institute of Public Affairs, lean exclusively to one party, and condemn almost everything the opposing parties propose or do.

In a comment on the piece Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, Doug Evans, after conceding that the thought of the election of an Abbott government appalled him, went onto say: “I do not understand the unwillingness of intelligent articulate wordsmiths to critically address the shortcomings and missteps of the Gillard government alongside its (admittedly) largely unsung strengths.” His comment prompted me to question the role and orientation of this blogsite: The Political Sword.

Readers have only to read through a few pieces to ascertain that this site is supportive of PM Gillard and her Government. As the owner of the site, I believe that the Rudd/Gillard Government has been an active, reforming government, tackling some of the urgent issues facing this nation: global warming; a failing and inequitable education system; a health system, which although world class, is failing to meet fully the needs of the people, particularly the ageing population, the disabled, and those with mental illness and dental problems; an industrial relations system that was tilted too much to favour the employer; infrastructure deficits in road, rail and ports all over the country; a tax system that needed overhaul to correct anomalies and address the structural deficits in the tax system created by the Howard/Costello Government; a superannuation system that was not providing adequate security for workers; an inadequate communications network that needed upgrading to very fast broadband to keep pace within the developed world; a troubled asylum-seeker policy; and indigenous disadvantage that constituted a national disgrace.

The Government has tackled these and many other issues with purpose and vigour in the last three years, in the face of unremitting Coalition hostility in a minority parliament. Over five hundred pieces of legislation have been passed in this term, without a failure. And in the process, it has sustained the economy in a state better than in any other developed country, even despite the global financial crisis, a crisis that still exists and wreaks havoc in many countries. I applaud what the Rudd/Gillard Government has achieved under very difficult circumstances. For any who doubt the extent of these achievements, do read the comprehensive list in Judging Gillard and the Labor Government by John Lord in The Australian Independent Media Network.

I admire the strength of PM Julia Gillard and her persistence in the face of all the vitriolic hatred directed at her by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Coalition members, and the Fourth Estate, notably the Murdoch media. Is there any politician in recent times who has suffered such venomous abuse and denigration, such persistent personal castigation and demonization day after day, week after week, month after month? Is there any other politician that could have withstood it with such equanimity?

Moreover, the PM has shown herself to be highly intelligent and competent, a leader who has an astonishing grasp of every portfolio within her Government, who can answer any question she is asked, and despite the malevolent efforts of journalists, never seems wrong-footed. She does not walk away when the questions get tough. She has demonstrated her courage and persistence in the face of penetrating and sometimes personal questioning on many occasions, some of them marathons.

And I like her. Although we have never met, from all I have seen on TV of her interaction with the public at formal events, at community meetings, or on less formal occasions, and from reports posted here from our visitors, she seems to be genuine, personable, good humoured and charming. She relates comfortably to a wide variety of people, and enjoys especially her interactions with children, who genuinely seem to like her. I find it impossible to feel antagonistic to her, as many seem to feel, and deplore the hatred and loathing that the Coalition and much of the media directs at her continuously.

It is for all of these reasons that this blogsite is an enthusiastic supporter of the PM and her Government.

In stark contrast, from the very beginning her opponent Tony Abbott and his Coalition embarked on a campaign of negativity, obstruction, and vitriolic personal abuse. Progressively, they have announced a destructive plan should they win government, a plan to smash virtually every reform the Government has initiated. Whatever else Abbott says he has in his DNA, he has an abundance of vengeance.

Is there a downside for the Gillard Government? Like all governments before, the Rudd/Gillard Government has made mistakes. There have been matters they might have handled better. But their faults are nowhere near the magnitude that the Coalition and the complicit media paint. They have been deliberately and maliciously magnified. Reflect on how the Murdoch media amplified the difficulties encountered in the rollout of the HIP and the BER, both successful and socially beneficial programs, but painted as unmitigated disasters. Mendacious reporting, skewed analysis, distortions, misrepresentations, and at times blatant lies, were disseminated in place of accurate reporting and analysis.

Although it is not perfect, I support the Gillard Government because of its ideals of equity, fairness and opportunity, its vision, its narrative, and its policies and plans. I have held this position for years, and nothing I have seen has ever given me any encouragement to abandon PM Gillard and Labor and support Opposition Leader Abbott and the Coalition. I reject the ideology, the policies, and the plans of the alternative government, which are anathema to me.

Expect more of the same attitude and approach on The Political Sword.

I will certainly not behave as some Labor backbenchers are at present. The sniggering Joel Fitzgibbon and the spluttering Doug Cameron both mocking the ‘talking points’ given them by the media office was not just unedifying, but corrosive of party cohesion. Making public the packing up of their parliamentary offices by Daryl Melham and Alan Griffin as a sign they would lose their seats, was damaging to the Labor cause. Whatever these four backbenchers felt personally, such a public display of disdain and defeatism was both disloyal and stupid. They could have kept their feelings to themselves, as team players would have done. Surreptitious backgrounding of journalists with stories of dismay at the polling, and despair about the election, is another example of disloyalty; those who do this must know that their corridor whispers will end up being splashed throughout the media. These Nervous Nellies are unsuitable for politics, which always involves contests, and winners and losers. They lack loyalty and guts. They should learn about guts from their leader. So for those looking for criticism, here is a one of contemporary Labor: there are too many parliamentarians who are not pulling together in the interests of the Labor Party and the Labor movement; there are too many creating dissent.

With Labor parliamentarians behaving in this destructive way, should a site as supportive of Labor as The Political Sword embark upon criticism of Labor policies or plans or actions in pursuit of this elusive attribute called ‘balance’? Doug Evans hints that perhaps it ought.

There are two reasons why this seldom occurs here.

First, there are so many blogsites that criticize the Gillard Government incessantly, so many media outlets that do this unremittingly, scarcely ever giving the smallest commendation, that in the interests of fair play, it seems to be unreasonable for a supportive site to join the cacophony of censure, disapproval, and condemnation. Sites supportive of the Coalition do not waste words pointing out its defects, its mistakes. Never. They refrain from critiquing their own side at least in part because they know that their criticisms will end up on opponents’ blogsites as evidence that there is dissent in their ranks.

So, instead of adding to the cacophony, in my view a more productive approach for The Political Sword is to make positive and practical suggestions about how Gillard Government policy and its implementation could be improved. As the next section will show, this is easier said than done. This is especially the case where the problem is beset with complexity, is politically sensitive or threatening, and has the potential to influence election outcomes.

Here is a second reason why The Political Sword has hesitated to engage in critical comment. Some of the policies that Labor has implemented deal with exceedingly complex issues, issues that are prime targets for criticism by those who think they know better, issues that create hostility in a substantial part of the electorate. These critics offer criticisms of bits and pieces of a policy, but never offer a comprehensive alternative. It’s easy to pick holes in a policy and how it is being implemented, but much more challenging to put together an alternative. The asylum-seeker issue is a case in point.

To illustrate my point, I invite you to engage in an exercise with me. Let’s see how adept we are at devising an asylum-seeker policy, an area more contentious than almost any other.

I invite you to present your asylum-seeker policy in ‘dot point’ format because that will make it easier to read and assimilate. I also ask you to preface your dot points with a list of what you wish to achieve with your policy. In other words, aims first, then policy structure in some detail.

Let me give an example of how aims might read. In devising a policy, my aim would be the following:

. To establish a humane and welcoming approach to those escaping from fear of persecution and harm who seek asylum here.

. To arrange a method of arrival that did not include dangerous sea voyages on unsafe boats that risked drowning at sea.

. To ensure rapid appraisal of the legitimacy of claims for asylum of all arrivals, and prompt completion of necessary health and identity checks, with short stays in onshore detention while this is being carried out.

. Once the checks have been satisfactorily completed, to arrange re-settlement in the community, with access to jobs, services, schools, and opportunities for integration.

. To establish community reception amenities and staff, especially in areas that need workforce support, to welcome new arrivals and assist them to integrate into the community.

. To return arrivals that are not genuine asylum seekers according to UN criteria to their home country, provided it is safe to do so.

. To disrupt human trafficking and the business of those who are involved in people smuggling by boat.

. With UNHCR support, to establish processing centres in countries which asylum seekers traverse, and in countries of origin where possible, to provide rapid checks of identity, health and legitimacy of asylum claims, with air transport to Australia for community settlement once accepted. This would be an ‘approved’ way of entering Australia.

. To institute disincentives to dissuade those who might seek to engage people smugglers. This might involve the application of a ‘no-advantage’ arrangement whereby those who sought to bypass an ‘approved’ process, did not gain an advantage. Offshore processing with lengthy delays as a disincentive, ought to be a last resort.

. Recognizing that no one country could accommodate the millions of genuine refugees around the world, to establish community consensus about what constitutes an appropriate intake into Australia.

. Recognizing that asylum-seeker policy is a contentious and divisive issue, and for some in the electorate an explosive one, to establish a national program to inform citizens of our UNHCR responsibilities and to promote the concept of Australia as a decent nation willing to welcome a fair share of the world’s refugees, commensurate with its wealth and its capacity to do so. Such a program would have, as a major aim, the neutralizing of the issue politically.

. To attempt to achieve bipartisan agreement on asylum-seeker policy.

This list of aims is offered, not for your approval or endorsement, but simply to illustrate how aims might be formulated.

In formulating your policy, list first your aims as ‘dot points’, then list ‘dot points’ that flesh out how your policy would work in practice. I have not gone this far as I don’t want to preempt your offerings.

I know that should you respond you won’t insult our intelligence by simply regurgitating anything resembling the simplistic Abbott asylum policy: his three-headed plan to “Stop the boats” by ‘turning boats around when safe to do so’, ‘offshore processing’ and ‘temporary protection visas’. You may wish to include some of these, but please flesh them out more than Abbott ever attempts to do. He treats us all like mugs. We have had enough of this.

While other political blogsites will have their own concept of their role, in attempting to define the role of this particular site, and in response to the suggestion that The Political Sword ought to address deficiencies in the Gillard Government as well as its strong points, I believe that instead of joining with Labor’s opponents in strident condemnation, it is more appropriate for this site, which is supportive of the Gillard Government, to suggest ways that policy could be improved or implemented better. As an example, asylum seeker policy is proposed as the one that causes perhaps the most angst, the one that attracts the most criticism, the one where countless critics tell us by their words of criticism that it should be done differently, and much better. This piece offers the opportunity for these critics to tell us how they would fashion asylum-seeker policy, what aims it would have, and how it ought to be implemented, taking into account the multiple factors that operate in this vexed area of policy. The challenge, simply stated, is that instead of giving us your piecemeal criticism, you tell us what your aims would be and how you would achieve them, in some detail.

It’s especially an invitation to the scathing critics of Labor’s asylum-seeker policy that comment here from time to time, and who may return to comment on the unfolding tragedy near Christmas Island. Instead of another acerbic criticism of this or that aspect of the current policy, tell us in detail what your asylum-seeker aims are, and what your policy would be were you in government. Here’s your chance to put up or shut up.

Your thinking and your response to this challenge will be welcomed.

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Adam Bandt, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Doug Cameron, Jason Clare, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Alan Griffin, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Leigh, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Daryl Melham, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Political hatred: Is there a remedy?

The short answer to the question is ‘Yes’. The longer answer is ‘Yes’, but with a string of caveats. While the piece just gone: Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, attempted to define the origins of political hatred and describe the terrible damage it is causing, the damage it is doing to the fabric of our society, no attempt was made to suggest a remedy, indeed if a remedy is at all possible. This piece is to fill that void.

Using the medical model of first seeking an accurate diagnostic formulation before suggesting a remedy, let’s tease out the causes of hatred and how it manifests itself, then see what remedies might be available.

There are always multiple factors that contribute to complex problems, but let’s confine ourselves to just some of the major ones that might bring about political hatred: ideology, adversarial politics, power and money.

Does ideology cause hatred?
While the extremes of ideological persuasion in politics are capable of bringing about hatred, as we have seen manifest in violent revolutions throughout history where, for example, capitalism and communism have clashed, do the different ideologies of our major political parties here cause hatred?

In my opinion, hatred is the most extreme response to ideological debate. What we ought to see instead is robust dialogue, argument, claim and counter-claim, agreement and disagreement, even opposition, but without the hatred.

To give an example of a major difference in ideology, conservatives believe, amongst other things, in free markets, light regulation, small government, enterprise, competitiveness, a modest safety net, and low taxes, or at least that is what they claim. Progressives believe in measures that ensure a strong economy that provides full employment and prosperity, but strongly emphasize fairness, equality, opportunity, a good education for all, universal health care, and now disability care, as the last five years have demonstrated. Conservationists put environmental concerns and ecological sustainability high on their list of preferences. It is when these are applied that the jarring differences become apparent.

During the global financial crisis, preferring a Keynesian approach, Labor applied a succession of stimulus measures to keep people in jobs and avoid the economy going into recession, preferring to incur debt in order to do this. It was successful. Australia weathered the economic storm better than all other developed countries and achieved triple A ratings from all three ratings agencies. The Coalition’s preference was to avoid debt, to apply modest stimulus, and to return to surplus budgets. The Greens generally supported Labor’s moves. Naturally, there was healthy argument about the pros and cons of Labor’s approach, argument that was expected and was an acceptable part of political discourse.

But it was when opposition morphed into strident, and at times vitriolic criticism, when Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey turned the criticism beyond debating the ideological and practical pros and cons of Labor’s Keynesian approach, into venomous condemnation of the Government, the PM and the Treasurer, that hatred was fostered. No longer was it an economic debate, it was ‘a Government addicted to spending and debt’, ruining our economy, and accumulating debt that would burden our grandchildren. No longer was Labor criticized for its economic policy, it was ‘a bad government getting worse’. Disagreement with Labor’s policy became condemnation of it as a party that did not know what it was doing, and a party in which its senior members were labelled as incompetent.

When the debate changed from an ‘academic’ debate about economics to a personal attack, loaded with invective and abuse, which is what took place, hatred was fostered. The voters were encouraged to suspect the Government’s capability and question its intent. ‘Addicted to spending and debt’ stuck in people’s minds and alienated them.

This is an example of where hatred was promoted, where it need not have been at all.

Let’s look next at climate change and Labor’s response. Labor is convinced of the reality of global warming. It favoured an emissions trading scheme as the most effective mechanism to reduce carbon pollution and curb temperature rises. You all know the history of how this was aborted by the Rudd Government, re-introduced by the Gillard Government, and modified after the advent of a minority Government. Julia Gillard’s determination to initially put a price on carbon morphed into a ‘carbon tax’ and her subsequent placing of a price on carbon morphed into a 'broken promise'. ‘LIAR’ was stamped across her forehead. What ought to have been a debate about the reality, or otherwise, of anthropogenic global warming became a personal attack on PM Gillard and the labeling of her as a liar, a denunciation that has stuck in voters’ minds, as the Coalition intended it to do. The debate about AGW, about which the Coalition still seems skeptical despite its recent parliamentary acceptance of it, and what to do about it, was lost in the vicious personal attack on PM Gillard, an attack intended to diminish her as a leader, and make her Government less electable. Some would say that is legitimate business for an opposition. But for the people of Australia I believe good governance is the most important expectation of the Federal parliament; instead, the alternative government is making governance as difficult as possible.

So there is another example of where sensible debate about an important political issue was perverted and transformed to a personal harangue that has generated hatred and loathing. Who loves a liar? It need not have been this way.

Is there a remedy for this phenomenon, for this pathological condition? Of course there is. Politicians could talk about their values, their ideology, their vision for the nation and the policies and plans they have to achieve that vision. They could talk about the raisons d'être of their Party and its ‘narrative’ for bringing about needed change, necessary improvements. Instead, they fight and demean each other, put up as many barriers to progress as they can, and seek to destroy their opponents. Is there any possibility that they might change to a form of debate that is more productive and less destructive?

In my view, it is an addiction to adversarial politics that creates this state of affairs.

Does adversarial politics bring about hatred?
While it is accepted as the norm in Australian politics, and indeed seems accepted as part of the Westminster system of government, is seems to me to be the genesis of much of the conflict and hatred we see day after day. Randolph Churchill’s dictum for oppositions: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”, has been adopted by Tony Abbott. Read his Battelines. The Coalition has followed this to the tee. Virtually everything the Government has proposed has been opposed, except for some recent legislation that happens to suit the Coalition as it anticipates taking over government. Even measures consistent with the Coalition’s ideology have been opposed, simply for opposition’s sake. It has been incongruous to see the Coalition, ‘the party of low taxes’, oppose tax reductions simply because they advantaged poorer folk.

When trenchant opposition unnecessarily obstructs good governance is it any surprise that anger and resentment is created, and eventually hatred. Why do we have to suffer adversarial politics? Politicians and most commentators accept it as the custom and accept mindless opposition as ‘what oppositions always do’. Does it have to be this way? Why are we wedded to adversarial politics when some countries, notably in Europe, have governments that operate by consensus? Why couldn’t we operate by consensus on every occasion where it was ideologically possible? One can only conclude that politicians don’t want it this way, that they enjoy the adrenaline rush adversarial politics engenders. Commentators too prefer adversarial politics because it generates conflict, contest after contest, winners and losers, all of which is great copy for our conflict, entertainment-driven Fourth Estate.

In my opinion, adversarial politics is a potent progenitor of hateful politics. Another model seems preferable, but there is no enthusiasm for change. If you believe the polls, our minority government, which has operated largely by consensus among the non-Coalition players, is not favoured by the electorate. A remedy for the ill affects of the adversarial approach remains elusive.

Is the pursuit of power the genesis of political hatred?
Yes. There is no room for disputing this. Politics had always been a power game. Politicians and political parties have always sought power. Power enables people and parties to do what they believe is desirable. In that sense, it is natural. But when the quest for power overwhelms, when its pursuit is the prime activity, perversion of the political process occurs, conflict abounds, and hatred is generated. Killing off an opponent, figuratively speaking, is seen as acceptable in the pursuit of power.

But the quest for power extends well beyond politics. Many players seek the power to influence the political process, sometimes directly or overtly through the media, sometimes surreptitiously through lobbying in all its forms. We saw how the miners publically fought the mining and carbon taxes, how they still seek to influence the political process though their support for Coalition members. Think of Gina Rinehart and her closeness to Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce. Think even more deeply about the Murdoch influence on Abbott and indeed on the whole campaign. Think about how the full NBN would threaten Murdoch’s Foxtel empire, and about how media regulations, which a returned Labor Government would likely reintroduce, would threaten what Murdoch insists ought to be unfettered ‘freedom of the press’.

It is these peripheral players whose power is threatened, who believe their commercial interests are being placed in jeopardy, who are already exercising influence to such an extent that Tony Abbott and his senior Coalition colleagues seriously risk becoming mere puppets of Murdoch, Rinehart and anyone else who seeks power, who has money, and who is prepared to use it to get what they want.

It does not take a genius to imagine the dividend of this quest for power, this buying of favours. They want the Coalition and the sycophantic Abbott in power so that they can continue to exercise the power they need commercially. Those who pursue power for commercial reasons do not tolerate obstruction of their wishes. They will demean, diminish, degrade, disgrace, and if that creates loathing and hatred, so be it. We see this in the Murdoch media day after day after day.

Yet, it need not be this way. Labor politicians have shown that even as they seek power to enable their own plans, they can resist the power plays of those who seek to use them for their own ends, as has been the case with the media. Remember PM Gillard’s: “Don’t write crap”. But can Abbott, will Abbott, be able to resist these power plays? Does he wish to? Or is he happy to go along with these powerful people to get what he wants – political power, no matter what the cost to his political opponents, no matter what damage it does to the nation, no matter how much hatred is spread around? It seems as if the answer is: Yes!

In my view, the pursuit of political power by politicians, and by power seekers in the community who use politicians to achieve it, is a potent progenitor of hatred. But is there any remedy for this predisposition? How can those seeking power be persuaded to do so evenhandedly, free of malicious intent. Something approaching an epiphany would be necessary to convert the contemporary players.

How important is money in the genesis of hatred?
Of all the powerful factors that generate hatred, money is arguably the most important. The old adage: ‘Follow the money’ is as true in politics as in any other pursuit.

Money is what motivates the peripheral players. Businesspeople like Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart, to name just two prominent moguls, live and breathe money. Any threat to their continuing prosperity is attacked with vigour. No retaliation is too harsh, no action too severe. No matter how much hatred and loathing is generated, it is justified. The ends justify the means.

We see every day how the Murdoch empire pursues its quest for power through its media outlets. For two years now, noxious material about PM Gillard, her ministers and her Government have been disseminated through its press and its TV. Vitriolic hatred has poisoned the Murdoch offerings, unfortunately now replicated by Fairfax media, and even at times the ABC. Murdoch had created a loathing of Julia Gillard in the public’s mind, so much so that there have been two recent episodes of sandwiches thrown at her by schoolchildren. Imagine the conversation that must have occurred in the homes of these kids that would encourage them to throw missiles at our Prime Minister.

This is a reflection of the loathing and hatred that Abbott and his Coalition members have generated, which has been enthusiastically echoed and amplified day after day, in every outlet he owns, by Murdoch and his editors. He could have chosen to do otherwise. He could have chosen to have his journalists report facts accurately, to argue a position from them logically, to insist that opinion be based on evidence and sound reasoning. He chose to do the opposite: to distort information, to cherry pick the facts that suited his case, to misinform, even to tell downright lies, as hundreds of articles testify. He chose to vilify and demonize. He chose to use partisan opinion as news.

He chose to build up Opposition Leader Abbott, to overlook his misdemeanours, to not challenge his lies and mendaciousness, to echo his vile propaganda. He could have chosen otherwise. He could have chosen to be evenhanded and fair, and balanced in his media outlets. It was his choice to travel the Abbott road. It was his decision that this was in his commercial and ideological interests; it was his choice to do ‘whatever it takes’ to grasp the prize - a compliant, even sycophantic Abbott government.

Just imagine for a moment though what would happen if Murdoch were to call off his dogs, were he to indicate to his editors that he wished now to support PM Gillard, her ministers, and her Government, and wanted every good move it made given front page coverage, and also that he wanted Tony Abbott, his shadow ministers, and the Coalition publically excoriated day after day for their bad behavior, or for that matter, any behaviour at all. The attitude of the electorate and the opinion polls would be reversed in a matter of weeks.

Money drives ambition, avarice knows no bounds, little stands in the way of protecting money and making even more of it. It stands alone as the most powerful of all progenitors of hate and loathing. But is there any remedy for insatiable greed, and for the awful fallout that it can generate as the greedy pursue more and more wealth? Great wealth need not result in avarice and power plays to make more wealth. Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world, has found a way of having wealth but using it for the benefit of others. He does not need to generate hate to achieve his aims. Nor does Warren Buffett. Nor should any other wealthy person. Is the Gates/Buffett remedy one the wealthy in this country are prepared to adopt? I wonder?

This piece attempts to identify the factors that generate hate and loathing of PM Gillard, her Government, and the Labor Party. It is postulated that political ideology, the adversarial system of government, the quest for power, and the pursuit of money, all in their own way are capable of generating loathing and hatred, but none so powerfully as money. It suggests that it need not be that way; that it could be different. It suggests that ideological discourse need not end in vilification, that the adversarial system need not be as unremittingly negative as it has become, that the quest for power need not involve denigration, and that the pursuit of money can be associated with generous behavior, can be devoid of negativity, can be accomplished without the sinister overtones of hatred and loathing.

But is it like trying to catch rainbows to contemplate a different way of doing things; is it folly to hope for a change of behavior in those with entrenched views; is it silly to look for a miracle? Perhaps it is. But should the difficulty of effecting change deter us from trying? Should we just fold our tents and retreat? If no voice is raised in protest, if no one tries to change the monolithic structures that dominate the political scene, there is no hope for any of us. Even our small voices just might be heard, just might be amplified by those who feel similarly. So let’s speak up and keep up the pressure for change.

I know some will come here insisting that poor old Ad Astra has ‘lost the plot’, yet again, that I continue to live in a fantasy world, and that none of what I am advocating will ever eventuate. That will not stop me, nor should it you.

What do you think?

Political hatred: its genesis and its toll

We’ve known for ages that there are pockets of political hatred in the electorate that fester away and erupt from time to time, pouring their purulent discharge over the political discourse, offending many with its stench. But how many of you can remember such an exhibition of hatred as we have seen recently?

For me it came to a head after Julia Gillard wept in parliament when introducing the final piece of legislation to enshrine the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Not long before, she had witnessed the situation of a 17 year-old boy Sandy, severely disabled with cerebral palsy, and that of a 12 year-old girl Sophie who has Down syndrome.

As she recounted these encounters, she was moved to tears – genuine tears. Tears of sadness at the plight of these children and their families, tears of relief that at long last the parliament of Australia was legislating a scheme that would support them not just now, but in the future when their carers were no longer able to care for them, and perhaps tears of regret that so few Coalition members were present to witness the introduction of this historic legislation, a bill they supported. As far as one could see, only the shadow minister and one other of the Coalition were in the House – for the others it seemed to be not important enough to warrant their presence.

Even some hard-nosed journalists acknowledged the genuineness of her tears, and some Opposition members, when questioned, did too.

But talkback radio was a different matter. One caller said they were ‘crocodile tears’, adding that Julia Gillard ‘couldn’t lie straight in bed’. Jon Faine reported on ABC Melbourne radio that two-thirds of the many text messages he received on this matter accused PM Gillard of faking her tears for affect, of using them to foster sympathy. Two-thirds! Another caller, appalled by such vicious, vitriolic, venomous comments asked why these people had such hate in their hearts, why, when people were ‘celebrating in the streets’ the advent of the NDIS, there were ‘craven, mean, petty-minded characters saying such awful things’, adding: ‘what’s inside the people who say these horrible things’. Indeed, what’s inside them?

This piece posits that this hatred is cultured, that it has been cultured ever since Tony Abbott became Opposition Leader, and all the more so after Julia Gillard outmanoeuvred him to gain the support of the Independents to form a minority Government. The evidence to support this proposition follows.

Abbott has always maintained that he should have been PM, that the Gillard Government is illegitimate, and that he would do everything in his power to bring it down, something he envisaged would be easy and swift, and The Lodge his by Christmas. That was two Christmases ago, and with each passing day his anger heightened and his campaign of vilification intensified.

Before any of you tell me that politics is a rough and tumble business, that conflict is at its very centre, that such hatred is the norm, reflect on when you have previously seen such intense hatred. We all remember the unpleasant things that were said about some of John Howard’s policies, about some of his statements, about some of his ideological positions, about some of his reversals – ‘core and non core promises’ – even about his eyebrows, but can you recall such a level of hatred, such vitriolic hatred, being expressed? Older readers will remember some of Paul Keating’s colourful language, but can you recall him emitting hatred such as has been directed to Julia Gillard?

I have not witnessed such hatred as we now hear in the language that Opposition members and some commentators use, and see in the angrily contorted faces of Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop and other Opposition members in parliament and in interviews.

I point the finger of blame for the genesis of the hatred we now see in politics, and in particular the hatred aimed at our Prime Minister Julia Gillard, directly at Tony Abbott, an attack dog from way back and more viciously so since the 2010 election.

I also blame his Coalition colleagues, particularly Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Eric Abetz, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Sophie Mirabella, Bronwyn Bishop and Kelly O’Dwyer for echoing the Abbott hatred. I blame his sycophantic media shock jocks that spew venom from their radio and TV shows: Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, and Andrew Bolt, who not only echo the hatred, but add to it. I blame his many media supporters, who in a subtler way echo Abbott hatred, and who by their sins of omission fail to admonish Abbott for his hate, who fail to pull him up and question his behaviour, often preferring to congratulate him on the ‘success’ of his vitriolic conduct. I blame media proprietors and editors for fostering hatred through their pages, particularly their front pages.

How has the hatred come about?

From the moment of his defeat seventeen days after the 2010 election, the Leader of the Opposition labelled the Gillard Government as illegitimate – a ‘bastard’ government. He labelled Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership illegitimate, a ‘bastard’ Prime Ministership. He insisted minority government was unworkable and destined for failure, and relentlessly set about ‘proving’ it so, repeatedly insisting it was a ‘failed experiment’ almost as soon as it began. He created a seething environment of loathing of minority government.

This festering atmosphere of hatred was the ideal milieu that allowed, even fostered, the genesis of one of the most potent progenitors of hate – the use of LIAR as a label for PM Gillard. We all know how it came about: “There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”, a clip replayed hundreds of time to underscore Abbott’s insistence that this PM is a liar. The other things she said during the 2010 election – that she was determined to put a price on carbon prior to introducing an emissions trading scheme – were given virtually no prominence. It was her ‘promise’ not to introduce what everyone insisted on calling a carbon tax, and her subsequent decision to introduce one temporarily as part of her negotiations with the Greens in forming minority government, with transition in a couple of years to a market-based emissions trading scheme that fuelled the ‘liar’ accusations. For the Coalition, it was simple: ‘She made a promise – she broke her promise – she is a liar.’ As if ‘liar’ was not potent enough, ‘untrustworthy’ was added. How many hundreds of times have you heard ‘liar’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘broken promises’ used against our PM? It is a mantra that has assumed almost a religious fervour. It’s easy to envisage drum-beating, cymbal-clanging Coalition advocates chanting these words.

As if the Coalition’s attack on our PM’s integrity was not enough, Alan Jones entered the fray with his insulting interview of Julia Gillard on 2GB, first reprimanding her for being ten minutes late for a radio interview with someone as august as Jones, then insolently calling her ‘Ju-liar’. But Jones was not finished. He expressed his utter disdain for our nation’s leader when he said she should be placed in a hessian bag and taken out to sea. He demeans her day after day and his listeners lap it up. There’s more – Jones was a sponsor of carbon tax rallies in Canberra that sported placards with ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ emblazoned on them, placards in front of which Tony Abbott, Bronwyn Bishop, and Sophie Mirabella stood, placards they denied seeing!

What began as an accusation of lying rapidly escalated into a hate-filled exhibition of contempt, derision, and scorn. The vision of those placards, the remembrance of that appalling episode in our political history, has been etched into the memory of the electorate. Is it surprising then that such hatred still burns in the hearts and minds of so many, so deeply imprinted that it evoked venomous comments about Julia Gillard’s tears last week?

Alan Jones is not alone. His 2GB colleague Ray Hadley has a vicious tongue that he uses to lash our PM, and many others. This week’s Australian Story on the ABC about this shock jock revealed that Hadley ‘encourages people to loathe’ – think of that: ’to loathe’. Is it any surprise that hatred lives in the hearts and minds of his listeners?

Here on this blog we have a few visitors whose singular message is that Julia Gillard is an untrustworthy liar, something they tell us endlessly, no matter what the subject. The language they use, the derogatory labels they apply to her, and the venom and sarcasm with which they write of her bespeaks their loathing of our PM. They reflect the hatred that has been generated in the community by the Coalition and its media sycophants.

Hatred grows. The Coalition has added even more to the loathing of Julia Gillard. It was not enough to call her an untrustworthy liar who broke promises. If an aura of incompetence could be added, how much more loathsome she would seem to be. From the early days of the Gillard Government, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, and their colleagues steadily built up an image of incompetence, poor decision-making, disorder, chaos, confusion, back-flips, dysfunction, an inability to govern, indeed an image of ‘a bad government, getting worse’, one that practises dirty, low politics. They have managed to do this even in the face of over 450 pieces of legislation already passed by the Gillard Government, much of it ground-breaking reform; even in the face of a Government that has successfully managed a $1.5 trillion economy through the greatest financial crisis in 70 years, an economy that is by far the best in the developed world, and acknowledged so with its three triple A ratings. All of this excellent achievement is negated by the spurious overlay of incompetence and chaos. The recent budget is portrayed by the Coalition as ‘an emergency’, as ‘chaotic’, loaded with ‘debt’ and ‘spin’. It is painted as unbelievable, its projected surplus as unattainable, and spending and savings figures as fictitious. Treasury’s estimates, and even its integrity, are queried. Gross incompetence is overlaid on everything the budget is proposing to achieve. Those who already hate our PM could only loathe her more as she goes about ‘wrecking the economy’, and those still with an open mind have any doubts amplified.

To add to this sorry scene, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, and indeed the whole Coalition finance team, have been talking down the economy for years, no matter how destructive they know this talk to be. Demeaning PM Gillard and Treasurer Swan is their objective, whatever the cost to the economy. Is it any wonder that consumer and business confidence is wavering?

This loathing manifests itself in unexpected ways. Talkback callers insist they cannot bear to listen to her, that her voice is like fingernails scraping down a blackboard. Even pro-Government commentators like Mungo MacCallum and Mike Carlton have unkind things to say about her voice and delivery: ‘droning’, ‘school-marmish’, condescending, boring, repetitive, lacking ‘cut-through’. Yet, John Howard’s voice was hardly inspirational. Tony Abbott’s cackle is grating, his angry barking repulsive; Joe Hockey’s bellowing is jarring; Christopher Pyne’s yapping repugnant; George Brandis’ sarcasm sickening; Julie Bishop’s feline spite shrill; Sophie Mirabella’s nastiness nauseating, and Eric Abetz's whining repellant. But have you heard criticisms of their voices and delivery from the commentariat? No, it’s Julia’s voice that we are encouraged to despise, to loathe, to hate, along with her nose, her dress, and her posterior. Hate grows.

It should come as no surprise that vox pops comment includes: ‘I’ve stopped listening to her’ and ‘I don’t believe anything she says’, which enables journalist after journalist, commentator after commentator, to insist ‘that the people have stopped listening’, a nihilistic conclusion, based on little but ephemeral comment. How many poll questions have you seen that address this matter?

All of this hate would have limited penetration had it not been for a compliant media, that virtually everyone now acknowledges is set upon the destruction of the PM and the Gillard Government. The ideology of the Labor Government and its pursuit of fairness spread across the community don’t fit with the ideology of commerce and industry, which is aimed at profitability. Labor’s emphasis on fair work conditions, strong superannuation, good education even for the disadvantaged, and universal health care does not align well with the aspirations of the commercial world, which is focussed on cost cutting, profit, expansion and competitiveness. Any attempt to have the prosperous sectors pay a fairer share is resisted with multi-million dollar public campaigns, as we have seen. Any attempt to raise the salaries of the lowest paid is habitually greeted with ‘commerce and industry cannot afford more than a modest increase’ and ‘jobs will be lost and sent overseas’ and ‘competitiveness will be destroyed’. These sentiments are expressed through all forms of the media, all the more strongly when the Opposition berates every move the Government makes and promises to reverse it in government.

Clearly most of the Fourth Estate favours Coalition policies and is doing whatever it can to have the Coalition in government. This was all the more obvious when their own industry was threatened, as it was with the Finkelstein Inquiry, the Convergence Review and the subsequent moves by the Government, moves that were resisted almost to the level of apoplexy by News Limited’s chief executive, Kim Williams.

Watch him here in action on Lateline!

So overwrought was he with the Government's proposals, that he portrayed the responsible minister, Stephen Conroy, as Stalin in one of his tabloids, a radical action he airily dismisses in his Lateline interview.

The media contribution to the hatred and contempt of PM Gillard, her ministers and her Government, was yet again exhibited starkly in the Front Pages after the budget.

Illustration from Crikey.

Notice how the inevitability of the defeat of Labor is embedded in these headlines. This is another element of the media’s strategy. The message is: How could you vote for this loathsome Labor Government, with its inept PM and its incompetent Treasurer? No one else will be voting for it. It is finished, set for a massive defeat, singing its ‘Swan song’, hopeless. The implicit message is: don’t waste your vote; get onto the winner – the Coalition. Overlay this sentiment onto the already hate-acculturated electorate and a powerful message is transmitted – vote this awful Gillard Government OUT.

This week, Mr Denmore began a superb piece Damned Lies and Journalism with a Tweet from Rupert Murdoch: “Oz polls show nothing can save this miserable govt. Election can not come soon enough. People decided and tuned out months ago. – Rupert Murdoch(@rupertmurdoch) May 19, 2013”. Is there any more convincing evidence of the genesis of this message? Is there any more powerful progenitor?

Reflecting the language of the Fourth Estate, particularly the Murdoch press, Mr Denmore’s first paragraph reads: “'The nation is drowning in debt. The federal government has lost control of public finances. The NBN is a disaster. Business is struggling because union thugs are destroying productivity growth. We are being overwhelmed with illegal boat arrivals. Refugees are living on welfare and bleeding us dry.'” Note how these themes, although gross misrepresentations and distortions of the facts, accentuate the ‘incompetence’ line. Here is his piece in full.

The strategy adopted by the Coalition and echoed by a largely compliant and supportive Fourth Estate, and by many in business and industry, is not new or unique. In Germany in the early thirties of the last century, the Nazi Party used the prevailing anti-Semitic sentiment to ‘blame’ the Jews for the loss of the First World War, (the ‘stab in the back’ myth) and for the poverty, the hyperinflation, and the unemployment that beset the republic at that time. Hatred and loathing of Jews was thereby accentuated. This was heightened by institutionalized persecution of Jews and Jewish businesses, which were subject to increasing vilification and restrictions. So much loathing of this group of people was generated that the obscenities of the Holocaust were able to take place under the nose of the German people with scarcely a murmur of protest. Therein was the terrible toll of hatred.

Joseph Goebbels oversaw that propaganda campaign. Here are some of his sayings. Read them and reflect.

The background to his campaign against Jewish people is encapsulated here: “A Jew is for me an object of disgust. I feel like vomiting when I see one. Christ could not possibly have been a Jew. It is not necessary to prove that scientifically - it is a fact.”

The basis of his propaganda strategy is captured by: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” and “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed." Goebbels went on to say: “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Reflect on: ‘the truth is the greatest enemy of the State’.

Reflect now on two other statements Goebbels made: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” and “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

I need add no comment for these statements to be understood; nor need I spell out any comparison with what we are witnessing in this country day after day. It is all too obvious. Note though that I am NOT labeling the Coalition as ‘Nazi’; I am simply drawing attention to the striking parallel between the Goebbels propaganda strategy of the Nazi era and what we are seeing unfold here before our very eyes. And I am drawing attention to the toll that this strategy brings in its wake.

The thesis of this piece is that there has been a carefully orchestrated campaign by the Coalition and much of the media to establish a culture of loathing and hatred of PM Gillard and her Government. The panoply of lies, broken promises, incompetence, chaos, ineptitude, mismanagement, an economy being wrecked by profligate spending and overwhelming debt leading to an aura of hopelessness, has been etched into the image of a Government in terminal decline, moribund, and needing to be put down.

I place this evidence before you and invite you to reach your own conclusions.

For the genesis of this campaign of hatred I point the finger at Tony Abbott and his media managers, for the dissemination and accentuation of it I point the finger at Coalition members, at the Fourth Estate, and at vested interests in commerce and industry.

This is no trivial matter. Our nation will suffer an awful toll. Look at the venomous hatred that infects our community now, hatred that promises to become overwhelming and even more toxic in the months ahead, and be afraid. This hatred threatens to be our national ‘grapes of wrath’.

Here is the woman the haters long to loathe.

What do you think?

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Craig Emerson, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Who's been playing in MY estate? Yet more ferment in the fourth and fifth

When is a writer not a journalist but a blogger, and when is a writer/blogger a journalist? Who decides? Does it matter?

Traditional or mainstream or 'old' media, and its power affiliates, are pushing back at the moment against the proliferation of small 'new media' online ventures fighting to be heard. Those broking power in the world of media are pushing hard because, as political commentator and ex-Press Gallery journalist Mungo MacCallum states, “these are not normal times and those making the judgements [media owners, editors, journalists] are anything but impartial”.

Three incidents highlighting the tension in the journalist/blogger, blogger/journalist dynamic occurred in media-world in the last few weeks.

Callum Davison [@callumdav], a freelance journalist, who had sought accreditation as Press Gallery representative for Independent Australia [@independentaus], received notification that he had been knocked back.

Then blogger, commentator and author of The Rise of the Fifth Estate (2012), Greg Jericho [@GrogsGamut], notorious overnight for being 'outed' from his blogger pseudonym by The Australian's James Massola, was hired as a journalist by the not-quite-yet-launched Guardian Australia (online). (Tweet: “Katharine Viner @KathViner Delighted to announce: #GuardianAUS joined by @NickEvershed, @GrogsGamut, @SimonJackman, @bkjabour, @heldavidson, @olliemilman, @mikewsc1 12:06 PM - 1 May 13”).

As well, on Monday 29 April, a new kid on the online publication block launched, its aspirations embedded in a somewhat classically titled masthead: The Citizen [@thecitizenweb].

These events resurface questions of who gets to define who is or is not a working journalist, how that defining occurs and to what standards a journalist, once defined as such, should be working – including ethical standards. If Callum Davidson (who holds a journalism degree and has worked freelance) can't be a Press Gallery member, could – if he wanted to and applied – Greg Jericho, who may never have actually worked as a journalist before? What about Margaret Simons, now overseeing The Citizen, who certainly has worked as a journalist?

We know that many journalists from newspapers and magazines now producing in digital and print media have jumped or been pushed in the last year or two. It's been hard not to hear the cries of anguish across the industry (especially if you follow journalists on Twitter). But we may be less aware of just how steadily the fourth estate has been bleeding into the so-called fifth and how many people who have worked as journalists are doing or have done real time in behind any number of online ventures that Twitter tags #newmedia. (Nor is it easy to clarify just how many once-were-bloggers have slid the other way across the divide into working as a journalist with reasonably established traditional media, albeit, as with Guardian Australia, on a digital end-product only.)

What does this two-way drifting make of the so-called divide between the fourth estate and the fifth? Are they still pretty much at standoff, with the fourth accusing the fifth of pea-green envy because they want to be the fourth, but don't have the 'right' credentials? Or, are they collaborating more, as Greg Jericho suggested should happen in his The Rise of the Fifth Estate? Or is the fourth trying to annex aspects of the fifth it can make fit old media models, while still pushing back against aspects it finds threatening?

Looking at how some of the #newmedia sees itself proffers some first clues, perhaps.

Amongst the more established online ventures set up by, or sometimes employing, journalists, New Matilda [@newmatilda] describes itself as an 'independent journalism site'; Independent Australia [@independentaus] as an 'online journal'; The Global Mail [@TheGlobalMail] as a 'not-for-profit news and features website'; The King’s Tribune [@TheKingsTribune] as a magazine, now in the form of a subscription email; and The Hoopla [@TheHoopla] as an 'online news and magazine site'. 

Then there's Crikey [@crikey_news], which describes its own 'mode of delivery' as 'website and email' and its mission (partly) thus:

“Crikey sees its role as part of the so-called fourth estate that acts as a vital check and balance on the activities of government, the political system and the judiciary.”

Crikey described The Citizen as 'a new site featuring the work of students, staff and freelance writers'. This is a tad disingenuous given that The Citizen, while first stating that it is a 'teaching tool', also states:

Finally, THE CITIZEN aims to be a serious and worthwhile publication in its own right, with an emphasis on quality journalism that, in part, seeks to ‘back fill’ on issues and events neglected by mainstream media battling cut-backs and cost constraints.”

This makes The Citizen not just a 'site' (for students), but a publication in direct competition with Crikey. Experienced ex-mainstream journalist and now academic Margaret Simons is Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen and Simon Mann, ex-The Age, amongst other things, is Editor. If you don't know Margaret Simons’ work, and her very lateral thinking on where journalism is headed, her 2012 e-book is available from Amazon: Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for the Press. Reading Chapter 5: 'The Citizen's Agenda' should prove illuminating.

Of the online ventures mentioned so far, most see themselves as paperless equivalents of newspapers or print magazines, thereby claiming a space in the fourth estate.

Well may they claim, but are they staking in very soft sand?

There are other online ventures, too, that just may be making claim. These began life more as blogs: community blogs set up for contributions by a group of writers, only one or two of whom might have a background in journalism or even public relations. They tend to describe their raisons d'être in similar terms to one of the aims of The Citizen, that is 'to fill the gaps', even if their motivation seems more frustration with the inadequacies of political reportage in the mainstream, or resisting what they see as bias in the existing media, than with omission via industry cost and cut-back.

There's Australians for Honest Politics (AFHP) [@NoFibs]. With a 'sub-banner' of 'Citizen Journalism' it describes itself as 'a new citizens journalism project in the tradition of one of the first, Webdiary'. Webdairy was in turn a first citizen journalism effort run initially under the Fairfax banner by journalist Margo Kingston [@margokingston1] and later run as an independent venture by her and others. Kingston argued strongly that Webdairy was not a blog, partly because a community of citizens wrote for it, and one would guess she might argue the same for AFHP, which she set up with Tony Yegles [@geeksrulz] who had some background with Webdairy in later years. Whether Kingston considers AFHP to sit within the fourth or the fifth estate might be gleaned from her 'outsider' comment:

“Me, I feel relaxed and comfortable sitting outside the system looking in. In my day, I was the first highly paid mainstream ‘blogger’, regularly on radio and TV. The nasty right, exemplified by Tim Blair, were the volunteer outsiders. Now Tim is ensconced in News Ltd, Andrew Bolt is the most-read mainstream blogger, and I’m the volunteer ignored by the MSM.

“Times change. I like where I am more than where I was. Because I’m free.”

There's the Australian Independent Media Network (AIMN), which has the subtitle 'An information alternative'. Its welcome post also flags the term 'citizen journalist'. It references Tim Dunlop's [@timdunlop] piece Media pass: citizen journalists need an industry body whose headline paragraph states: 

“Australian bloggers have a lot to offer in public debate, but an independent body is needed to establish the credibility and increase the exposure of our citizen journalists …”

and whose last sentence reads:

“Diversity of opinion is vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, but diversity without reach is just noise.”

AIMN's welcome post also notes:

“Over the coming days and weeks you’ll see this site take shape and the network develop, followed by what we endeavour to be quality, unbiased, balanced, independent journalism.”

And then there's Ausvotes2013 [@Ausvotes2013]. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it – Superblog? The last, it seems, since it has just won the 'Commentary' category of the Australian Writers' Centre Best Australian Blogs 2013 (where one of the judges was Greg Jericho). With a subheading of 'Election policy wonkage and much more' it describes itself as a 'group blog' and states:

“The concept for this blog is simple – to provide the observations, analysis and opinion that are missing in the traditional media’s coverage of the election. In short, to provide the perspectives we wish we could read in the MSM.”

But to return to the The Citizen, it seems, then, to be competition not only for Crikey, but for any number of longer-term #newmedia ventures as well as a number of recent 'online start-ups', this latter term being one way the Canberra Press Gallery described the growing band of independent, small-press-like online presences seeking real (as opposed to virtual) space in the Press Gallery's wing at Canberra's Parliament House. This Crikey piece doesn't quite tell us why Independent Australia's freelance journalist Callum Davidson didn't make it into the Press Gallery although a further piece from AFHP adds the insider colour of parliamentary security needs.

But there's the rub. Neither in the office space nor probably in the needs of Parliament House security do we really find the answer to why a Press Gallery pass was refused to Callum Davidson.

One further reason is suggested by The Citizen's launch edition via a critical article from Sydney Morning Herald Contributions Editor, and sometimes freelancer, Gay Alcorn, Want to be a journalist? Bloggers, online media sites invited to sign on to ’journalism code of ethics'. She states:

“The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, wants to bring them into the professional fold, at least tentatively. And the Australian Press Council, which regulates press standards, says one of the most critical issues facing the media is defining who, exactly, is a journalist in the digital age.

“The union has approached 20 websites it believes have shown signs they are interested in ethics, accuracy and paying contributors once they earn enough to do so. It says that so far, 12 have signed up to the union’s ‘Charter of Excellence and Ethics’, to be launched mid-year.”

According to Alcorn, both The Hoopla and The King’s Tribune are among the 12 'websites' that have signed up to the MEAA's Charter. Via tweet on the 29th April, Margo Kingston advised she had signed on too – presumably on behalf of AFHP. (If Independent Australia did, would that mean Callum Davidson would be accepted by the Press Gallery?)

Alcorn's piece takes us back to the same issue Tim Dunlop raised. But Dunlop posited a different approach: that 'citizen journalists' might, rather than being drawn into existing press structures and regulation, band together in:

“… an informal framework that allows smaller websites to acquire advantages currently limited to what we might call the legacy media, the mainstream journalists, who, by convention as much as anything, are given society's permission to pursue stories.”

Clearly, the advent of online media and the blogger/journalist dichotomy is proving a conundrum to those who claim the 'inside'. All kinds of attempts to corral and brand the small online media ventures are being made, either by keeping them outside an 'august' institution such as the Press Gallery, or by pulling them into an arguably equally august institution, such as the MEAA (and offering access to Walkley Training, no less), or perhaps by offering a lesser version of the MEAA's approach, a kind of outside/inside position, as in 'band together, at least in a loose structure, but self-regulate'.

It's a conundrum raising some significant questions – especially for an election year.

If the role of the fourth estate is to keep check on the first to third, and the rise of the fifth has been to balance the perceived inadequacies of the fourth, is the fifth better not to join any part of the fourth's power structures? How well can you check and balance if you become part of what you are checking? Does one challenge the status quo best from inside or outside (or is that all false dichotomy?)

If the quality of journalism is plummeting into sensationalist partisan regime-change-bent 'crap', as is often being suggested in this election year, but the ownership is large and powerful, should all the small independents come together to provide some truly competitive weight? Or does coming together, perhaps as one media producer with many arms, or perhaps as a loosely affiliated regulatory body, undercut entirely the potentially more radical action available to many smaller and diverse voices?

Are we even asking the right questions?

Does joining the Press Gallery really matter for #newmedia, or is this a body now diminishing in power and 'on the way out', and different bodies are needed?

In the flurry of Twitter activity following Callum Davidson's rejection by the Gallery, Andrew Elder tweeted:

Andrew Elder @awelder @margokingston1 @MargaretOConno5 @SpudBenBean Current President is @PhillipCoorey, who despises socmed. Good luck. Am trying to abolish PG.”

Within 10 days Elder [@awelder] had written this: Shadows on the Press Gallery wall 2: Where the action isn't. He noted: 

Today, press gallery journalists still think they are Where The Action Is, despite many years of evidence to the contrary. They are confirmed in that opinion by their dull-witted editors, and by the boards of the organisations which currently employ them. When broadcast media laid off hundreds of journalists last year, the fact that very few jobs went from the press gallery was a sign that they'd botched it.”

Is it that journalism as we know it is, itself, defunct for what was once its reading public, as Bushfire Bill [@BushfireBill] very recently argued:

People will not pay to see their beliefs and ideologies, their aspirations and loyalties, their need to be informed and to remain so, trashed by two-bit gurus with a bully pulpit put at their disposal, rabbiting on in the most offensive way about dinner parties, leaks from insiders and their own benighted opinions.

“It just won’t happen”.

Last, but not least: PolitiFact has launched in Australia. Its Australian editor is former SMH Editor-in-Chief Peter Fray [@PeterFray].

Will it police across all media, old and new, checking facts? Via its 'Truth-O-Meter TM', will it hound to metered truth all journalist/bloggers or blogger/journalists? Should it? How would it decide, given the ceaseless ferment in the fourth and fifth?

Perhaps we should ask Peter Fray!

What do you think?

Feathers Fly at the Federal Chook House

Gather around kiddies and I’ll tell you a story. 

Once upon a time there was a large farm where many farmyard animals lived. It was a very special ‘Animal Farm’. The farmer loved all his animals, but most of all his big flock of chooks. The farmer loved chooks so much he collected them from all over the country. He had hundreds of them. The more types of chook he had, the happier he was. Because he was ‘green’ farmer, he allowed his chooks to wander all over his farm to eat what they wanted, and scratch around where they liked. They were his pride and joy. He even had some that were rather thin and some that were lame. He was a kind farmer. He made sure they had plenty to eat. Every day he fed them grain and scraps.

He had run his farm for many years, and enjoyed watching how his chooks got on with each other. Sometimes they seemed to get on well; sometimes they quarrelled. Some were kindly chooks, but others always seemed to be angry and ready for a fight.

He noticed how there was always the boss chook, the Top Chook who was in control. The other chooks showed respect and seldom dared to challenge his authority. For a long while the top chook was a male, a rooster. He was a fine buff-coloured Orpington. Strangely, he didn’t have the most beautiful feathers, and he was not the biggest chook. He just looked important though, so important that he stayed Top Chook for over eleven years.

There was another chook who was always with the Top Chook. He helped him sort out the scraps that the farmer threw into the paddock every day. He was an Orpington too, but he was larger and white.

Secretly, he wanted to be Top Chook, but the other chooks didn’t like him that much. He always had a peculiar look on his face, and tilted his head to one side, as if he thought himself wise and clever. Although all the other chooks knew he wanted to be Top Chook, and some said he should have a go, he never plucked up enough courage to challenge Top Chook, so eventually he went off to another farm. He still thinks he ought to have been Top Chook, and occasionally comes to the other side of the fence to give advice to the other chooks.

All the time Top Chook ruled the roost, there was another chook who wanted his job. He had different ideas about how the scraps and the grain the farmer threw about should be divided up. He was a big and friendly Sussex with fine silver and black feathers.

He puffed up his chest but never bullied. But he let Top Chook bully him. So every time he tried for the Top Chook job, Top Chook came out on top. Eventually Silver Sussex’s friends decided he could never win. They decided instead that another chook, a much younger one, should have a go for the Top Chook job. He was a Silkie. He had a rich white colour and a fine crest of feathers. He was particularly proud of his crest and often tossed his head to keep his feathers in place.

Silkie decided that to beat Top Chook for the job he would pretend he was almost the same, only better. It worked. The other chooks were tiring of Top Chook. So was the farmer, and even the farmer’s wife and children thought it would be nice to have a different Top Chook after all this time. So when there was a contest, Silkie won and became Top Chook. His friends were delighted and gently pecked his plumage. He became the most popular chook since as long as anyone could remember. He did lots of good things and his friends and the farmer were very happy. But he became very cocky. He thought he was the smartest chook in the farm. He didn’t ask anyone else about what to do, because he though he knew it all. He looked down his nose at the other chooks and often kept them waiting when they wanted to talk with him. They got more and more angry, but he was so popular with the farmer they couldn’t do much about him. The farmer took him to chook shows where he did well, so he stayed the farmer’s favourite. But eventually Silkie became so cocky that his popularity fell and fell, and his friends got so fed up with him they decided they didn’t want him as Top Chook any more.

Instead, they wanted someone different to be Top Chook. Who do you think it was? Here’s a surprise. Top Chook had always been a rooster – now they wanted a hen. Imagine that – a hen. A hen had never been Top Chook before. But this hen was special – she was a Rhode Island Red. She was popular and clever.

She had been a helper to Silkie, had done a great job helping him, and had lots of admirers. Then one day, all of a sudden, the other chooks banished Silkie and made Rhode Island Red Top Chook. It was big shock to all the other chooks and to the farmer too. Although Rhode Island Red was popular, some didn’t like how she became Top Chook so quickly.

But then something nasty happened. Silkie still thought he was the best one to be Top Chook, and so started telling spiteful tales about Rhode Island Red. The tales worried the other chooks and the farmer and his wife and children. This nastiness went on and on for years. Rhode Island Red became less popular. Silkie tried to become Top Chook again and again, but failed every time.

All this time there was another chook who wanted to be Top Chook. He was a scrawny fellow that ran around the farmyard continually clucking the whole time. He never actually said much, but he crowed a lot and made a lot of noise. He was a strange chook, one you don’t often see - an Australian Pit Game. He had dark feathers but just a few on his head, and his red crest was small. He was very lean.

He kept on saying that Rhode Island Red should not be Top Chook. He said he should be. He had become ruler of the roost in his part of the chook pen by knocking off an opponent who also wanted the Top Chook job, a stylish, aristocratic rooster, a White Leghorn with lots of tail feathers.

So with White Leghorn out of the way, it became a contest between the Rhode Island Red and the scrawny Australian Pit Game. He said he would do anything to become Top Chook, anything. He just wanted the job.

So there was a big contest and something strange happened, something that had never happened before – at the end of the contest it was a draw! Rhode Island Red and the scrawny Australian Pit Game had the same number of friends. But there were some other chooks around who were not friends to either of them, and so they had to decide who would be Top Chook.

First they asked Rhode Island Red how she wanted to run the chook yard, and then they asked scrawny Australian Pit Game. The Red said she wanted to make sure that all the chooks got their fair share of the grain and the scraps. She had noticed that the big fat bossy chooks got the biggest share leaving only what they couldn’t eat for the smaller, thinner chooks, and those that were lame. So they stayed thin and their feathers stayed dull. She wanted to give them their own pile of scraps. Scrawny Australian Pit Game said he too was concerned about the lame chooks, but felt the thin ones didn’t deserve their own special scraps unless they put more effort into finding food. He felt everyone should work for what they wanted and not rely on others. He preferred to hang out with the bigger chooks, the bossy chooks, the fat ones that could look after themselves.

Guess how long it took the other chooks to decide who should be Top Chook – seventeen days! And which chook did they pick? You might be surprised – they picked Rhode Island Red to be Top Chook. Scrawny Australian Pit Game was furious. He wanted to be Top Chook and to sit on the Top Perch. He told the others that he would do anything to be Top Chook, anything at all. But they knocked him back. He was so angry and grumpy that he decided he would do whatever he could to push Rhode Island Red out, to throw her off the Top Perch. He started to call her names. He told everyone she told lies, broke promises and could not be trusted. The farmer and his family began to listen to him and her popularity fell. They began to wonder if she was the right person to be Top Chook. No matter what she did to help the other chooks, grumpy scrawny Australian Pit Game told everyone she was no good at her job, that she made too many mistakes. Like Henny Penny, he went round telling everyone that the sky was about to fall down because of her mistakes. He accused her of paying too much attention to the thin chooks. Her popularity fell and fell.

Then along came Top Fox. The farmer knew there were sly foxes around looking for an opportunity to take his chooks and kill them, not so much to eat them, but just to kill them. That’s what foxes do. Top Fox set out to kill Top Chook.

He had lots of fellow foxes that would do what he wanted, but the farmer had put a high fence around his chook yard to stop the foxes, so Top Fox had to wait for a chance to get her. He tried and tried. He too told everyone that Rhode Island Red was an untrustworthy liar and that she was so bad at looking after the chook pen that she was ruining it, and should be thrown out. He never ever talked about the good things she was doing. Scrawny Australian Pit Game was delighted. He crowed loudly and told anyone who would listen that he would soon be on the Top Perch.

But time went by and Rhode Island Red clucked quietly and went on looking after all the chooks, making sure the thinner ones and the lame ones got enough to eat. She smiled at Top Fox and his troop of foxes through the fence and ignored all their nasty talk. The other chooks took less and less notice of them and even laughed at them. This made Top Fox mad and he tried even harder to get through the fence.

All the while scrawny Australian Pit Game got even madder. He hated losing to females, he always had, and now he was losing again. She was Top Chook, not him. He made fun of her because she was ‘only a hen’. Hens were for laying eggs and looking after chickens, and here she was strutting around as Top Chook. She had no chickens, and had never even hatched any. He called her all sorts of names and so did the foxes, who were friends with scrawny Australian Pit Game. Then one day Rhode Island Red had had enough abuse from scrawny Australian Pit Game. She stood on the Top Perch and told him off in no uncertain fashion. She said he was anti-hen and should be ashamed of himself. He sat there very crest-fallen and looked much smaller than he was. Hens everywhere flapped their wings in delight. They too had had the same nastiness from roosters, and they were glad someone had finally stood up to a bullying rooster.

But with all the awful stories the foxes and scrawny Australia Pit Game were putting about, the farmer and his family began to believe them, became more and more worried, and wondered if Rhode Island Red was really the best one to be Top Chook. Her popularity fell even further. Eventually the farmer decided he might have to get rid of her when there was an opportunity. Her fate seemed sealed. No matter how well she managed the chook house, he felt that she might have to go because she was becoming so unpopular.

Then a funny thing happened. It really was funny because a flock of kookaburras came along. You know their nickname is Laughing Jackass. They sit on a tree branch and laugh and laugh and laugh.

They laughed at scrawny Australian Pit Game, and at Top Fox and his company of foxes too. The foxes became so mad they barked and screamed at the kookaburras and jumped up to catch them. But they always sat on high branches, too high for the foxes, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

They told the foxes they were sly and nasty and should stop telling lies about Rhode Island Red, and should be nice to her when she was doing such a good job in the chook pen. But the foxes didn’t want to listen, and said the kookaburras were ignorant and stupid and had no right to tell them what to do. They said foxes knew more about chook pens than ‘amateur’ kookaburras. But the chooks and the farmer’s family took more and more notice of the kookaburras and less and less notice of the foxes. The more they were ignored, the angrier the foxes became, and the louder they screamed. They were not used to being ignored. They had never ever been ignored in the past, and to make matters worse, the kookaburras were taking over from them. The chooks and the farmer enjoyed the laughing of the kookaburras and were getting sick of the screaming and barking of the foxes.

Kiddies, this is not the end of the story. How do you think it ended? Did they get rid of Rhode Island Red as Top Chook? Did scrawny Australian Pit Game become Top Chook and get to sit on the Top Perch? Well, we don’t know. We don’t know because there’s more to the story. The contest between Rhode Island Red and scrawny Australian Pit Game is not for another four months. He tried and tried to have the contest sooner, but no matter what he tried, he failed, which made him madder and madder.

The farmer was a fair man. He realized that he couldn’t throw out Rhode Island Red while she was doing a good job. His wife wasn’t so certain, and the children were split – one sided with Dad and the other with Mum. They all agreed though that scrawny Australian Pit Game couldn’t expect to waltz into the Top Chook job and sit on the Top Perch without telling all the chooks how he would make the chook pen better. He often said he would be much better than Rhode Island Red. He said she was hopeless, and was always running around like a ‘chook with no head’, but he never said how he would do a better job. The chooks that were friends with Rhode Island Red said: “Come on scrawny Australian Pit Game, tell us what you would do”. So did the kookaburras. Even some of the foxes said the same. But he wouldn’t say – he said “I’ll tell you later”.

So kiddies, you will have to wait. You will have to wait for scrawny Australian Pit Game to tell us what he will do. The farmer and his family and the other chooks wonder why he’s keeping it a secret, and some of the foxes are beginning to complain about the few things he did say he would do. Scrawny Australian Pit Game is beginning to look worried.

All the chooks, and the farmer and his family too, are asking when will he tell everyone what he intends to do to make the chook pen a better place? And if he does eventually, will the farmer’s family and the other chooks like it?

Isn’t it exciting kiddies! Only four months to go to the big contest. Then the feathers will fly in ernest. The Top Fox and his troop of foxes are getting madder, scrawny Australian Pit Game is frowning a lot and crowing very little now, but Rhode Island Red goes on calmly doing her job, trying to make the chook pen better, and the kookaburras go on laughing and laughing and laughing.

Living within our means, Hockey style

You have to give it to the Coalition propaganda machine – it never fails to come up with a brand new slogan with which it can belabor the Government. We are now being told by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey that we must ‘live within our means’. How many times have we heard that? Otherwise, they tell us, there will be Federal Budget deficits ‘as far as the eye can see’. Can you count how many times you have heard that little gem?

Again, the ability of the Coalition’s media machine to devise catchy slogans is apparent. Who would want deficits for as ‘far as the eye can see’; who would object to the notion of ‘living within our means’? When you look at these words seriously though, you will see that they are, as usual, just more of the Coalition’s catchy, plausible, yet meaningless slogans.

What does ‘living within our means’ really mean?

It all depends on the time, and the circumstances. By using the phrase though, the Coalition is relying on the electorate giving it a tick of approval without asking what they really mean by it.

When the parents of baby boomers lived within their means they did so by saving until they had the cash for what they wanted. With no credit cards around, that was the only option. For a house they saved until they had a deposit and then approached the bank manager with trepidation for a house loan that often stretched over 25 years, with three-monthly repayments. They ‘lived within their means’ because there was no other option.

By the time Generation X arrived, living within one’s means morphed into paying off the required minimum on the credit card each month, which was often ‘maxed-out’. They bought what they wanted within the limit on their cards and hoped they could pay for it some time. They paid a lot of interest on the way, and some defaulted. For housing, banks were willing to lend vast sums to buy McMansions, leaving house owners to worry about every interest rate rise lest it tip them over the edge and leave them not living within their means.

These two times reflect quite different ways of ‘living within one’s means’. The Coalition is using this homely metaphor in the hope that older people will think of what was in their early years almost a ‘cash economy’, certainly for everything but buying a home, and will apply that image to the one and a half trillion-dollar economy that Australia has. It is a misleading analogy that the Coalition hopes will have older people nodding in approval – of course the country must live within its means, just like we did!

Yet, should voters think about it, most of them who own a home today did not pay cash for it – they borrowed money and paid it off over many years. If that is normal and OK for homeowners, why is government borrowing so ‘evil’, why is incurring debt such a terrible blight on government? It’s only so because the Coalition has said so. Humpty Dumpty Hockey has ensured that ‘living within our means’ connotes just what he wanted it to mean – out-of-control borrowing to fund profligate spending. He even uses the maxed-out credit card analogy.

Let’s then examine why government borrowing is in a category different from personal and household borrowing, and why placing them in the same class is misleading.

Joe Hockey would have us believe that running a $1.5 trillion national economy is not dissimilar from running a household budget. He would have us believe that borrowing and running up debt is bad in both circumstances, and that when the budget is not balanced his so-called ‘belt tightening’ is necessary, whether it be a household budget or a government one. That analogy is simplistic either by design, or because Hockey knows no better. As Hockey wants to be Treasurer, we can only hope it is not the latter.

Governments are responsible for maintaining the health of an economy, no matter what the global financial circumstances happen to be. When there is high debt, where expenditure has exceeded revenue, especially for a long while, there is a natural tendency towards ‘belt tightening’, contemporaneously styled ‘austerity’, to reduce expenditure, to lessen debt and to move towards balancing the budget. That has been a dominant school of economic thought during the current global financial crisis. However, notwithstanding that plausible strategy, austerity has not been a spectacular success where it has been applied.

Europe has been the test bed for the application of austerity, or to use Hockey’s phrase ‘belt tightening’. The economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, and more recently Cyprus, were jeopardized by chronic overspending, particularly on social services, generous pensions and the like, spending that was not offset by revenue. The very wealthy in some of these countries, Greece in particular, made an art form of tax avoidance, so tax revenue has been chronically below expenditure. I emphasize ‘chronically’, to highlight the fact that this is no temporary deficit, as is Australia’s. It was understandable that when these economies reached the point where default on debt threatened, bailout funding was sought to address this sovereign debt risk.

Taking Greece as an example, the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a €110 billion bailout loan provided Greece implemented austerity measures to restore the fiscal balance, privatised €50bn worth of government assets by the end of 2015, and implemented structural reforms to improve competitiveness and growth prospects. Similar arrangements were made with other countries in a comparable situation. Austerity was a key element.

It was always a controversial remedy; advocates and opponents disagreed passionately about its capacity to resolve the Eurozone state of affairs.

In his 28 April article in The New York Times: The Story of Our Time, Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, wrote: "People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed…wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out."

Even those of us who were not in touch with the detailed economic arguments for and against austerity, saw on TV the political upheaval and civil disturbances that followed the imposition of austerity measures, first in Greece, and later elsewhere. Despite the application of these measures for a long while, there is not much positive to show for them in economic terms, and in places like Spain, unemployment has reached 27%, with youth unemployment approaching 50%.

Another article in The New York Times that Krugman wrote earlier in the year: Austerity Europe, may be of interest to the technically minded as it includes a revealing graph of how austerity is accompanied by reduced, not increased growth. Regarding that graph, Krugman says: "In normal life, a result like this would be considered overwhelming confirmation of the proposition that austerity has large negative impacts. Yes, you can concoct elaborate stories about how it could be wrong; but it’s really reaching. It seems safe to say that what we have here is a case in which rival theories made different predictions, the predictions of one theory proved completely wrong while those of the other were totally vindicated – but in which adherents of the failed theory, for political and ideological reasons, refuse to accept the facts." The last sentence is telling – although experience has demonstrated the failure of the austerity approach, its adherents cling tenaciously to it, even to this day.

Since Krugman wrote that article, academic evidence devastating to the austerity approach has emerged. The intuitive argument for austerity and belt tightening has been underpinned all this time by a 2010 academic paper Growth in a Time of Debt by Harvard academics Carmen Rinehart and Kenneth Rogoff of the US National Bureau of Economic Research, a paper that purported to ‘prove’ that debt inhibited economic growth, and by implication, austerity promoted it.

Rinehart and Rogoff reported three findings; the first, the one that austerity proponents relied upon, read: "Our main findings are: First, the relationship between government debt and real GDP growth is weak for debt/GDP ratios below a threshold of 90 percent of GDP. Above 90 percent, median growth rates fall by one percent, and average growth falls considerably more.”

The austerity advocates in Europe grasped onto this paper to reinforce their intuitive approach to debt problems in the Eurozone, namely that debt above a certain level inhibits growth, and that austerity was the answer. But it was not just in Europe that the paper gained ready acceptance. It was cited by Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican nominee for the US vice presidency, in his proposed 2013 budget The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal. Did Joe Hockey also read the Rinehart Rogoff paper and use it to support his ‘belt tightening’ mantra? I wonder!

The paper held sway for a couple of years, then along came Thomas Herndon, a doctoral student at the US Political Economy Research Institute, who, as part of his studies re-examined the Rinehart Rogoff paper, and to his surprise found an elementary error in the Excel spreadsheet they used to calculate their results.

Writing in an article: The Reinhart-Rogoff error – or how not to Excel at economics in The Conversation, Jonathan Borwein and David H Bailey from The University of Newcastle reported that after analysing the data, Herndon identified three errors: “The most serious was that, in their Excel spreadsheet, Reinhart and Rogoff had not selected the entire row when averaging growth figures: they omitted data from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark. In other words, they had accidentally only included 15 of the 20 countries under analysis in their key calculation. When that error was corrected, the “0.1% decline” data [a key finding supporting austerity] became a 2.2% average increase in economic growth.” [My bolding.] "So the key conclusion of a seminal paper, which has been widely quoted in political debates in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, was invalid.” Herndon’s professors, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, checked his findings and found Herndon had correctly identified the Rinehart Rogoff error.

The article in The Conversation concluded: ”If Reinhart and Rogoff…had made any attempt to allow access to their data immediately at the conclusion of their study, the Excel error would have been caught and their other arguments and conclusions could have been tightened. They might still be the most dangerous economists in the world, but they would not now be in the position of saving face in light of damning critiques in The Atlantic and elsewhere.

“As Matthew O’Brien put it last week in The Atlantic: “For an economist, the five most terrifying words in the English language are: I can’t replicate your results. But for economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff of Harvard, there are seven even more terrifying ones: I think you made an Excel error.

“Listen, mistakes happen. Especially with Excel. But hopefully they don’t happen in papers that provide the intellectual edifice for an economic experiment – austerity – that has kept millions out of work. Well, too late.”

The Gillard Government is not an adherent of the austerity approach, at least in the extreme form that was applied in Europe, but if one can judge from Joe Hockey’s words and Tony Abbott’s mutterings, the Coalition is.

It seems as if it is the conservative side of politics that favours the austerity line of attack. We hear it from the Coalition, we see it in an extreme form in Campbell Newman’s Queensland, we see it applied in its grossest form in Europe, we see it in the US in the ongoing fiscal cliff debate where the conservatives (Republicans) insisted that radically cutting government expenditure (austerity) and leaving untouched tax breaks for the wealthy is the only way to go, whereas the progressives (Democrats) advocate the opposite.

And if you need any more convincing of this stark difference in attitude and approach to debt in the Australian context, do watch Friday evening’s episode of Lateline where economist Stephen Koukoulas, MD of Market Economics, debated ‘the health of the economy’ with Judith Sloan, academic economist and economics editor at The Australian. Koukoulas spoke like an economist, Sloan like a Coalition advocate, slogans and all.

What the voters in Australia will soon have to decide is whether they want to go down the austerity track – ‘living within our means’ Hockey style – as advocated by the Coalition, or whether they prefer the less radical approach of the Government to bring the budget back to surplus in a steady fashion, preserving jobs and economic growth in the process.

Putting it more bluntly, voters will have to decide whether they want to follow a process of austerity discredited by experience in Europe, now stripped of its intellectual underpinnings, or follow the less radical approach of the Gillard Government that seeks to maintain modest expenditure and stay away from heavy-handed austerity, and in the process enable our nation to avoid an economic downturn and rising unemployment, a process that is based on sound economics and proven practice.

Sadly, the loose language that the Coalition uses in this debate may seduce the unthinking into believing that their plausible but empty slogans are economically sound, and well tried and tested.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Craig Emerson, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Bob Katter, Andrew Leigh, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Grasping at prime ministership the Abbott way

Let’s be clear from the outset. The lead up to the September 14 election will not be a respectful contest of ideas, a civil battle of policies and plans. It will be a bare-knuckle street fight between personalities, with no holds barred. The Abbott way countenances no other approach.

To seize the top job, the Abbott way is to have many lines of attack. A keen observer of the Abbott way is the source of the principles and strategies detailed below. Some may appear counterintuitive, but they work:

Feelings are more important in winning elections than rational thinking.
Capturing hearts trumps changing minds.
Emotionally laden words beat fact-based logic.

Here is the Abbott way of applying them:

Facts and logic point to the virility and robustness of Australia’s economy. So many of its parameters are laudable: low unemployment, low inflation and falling interest rates, low debt to GDP ratio, growth near trend, even rising business and consumer confidence and increasing retail sales in recent months.

Although we hear of job losses as industries affected by the persistently high Australian dollar shed workers, all except 5.6% of the workforce have jobs, historically low by any standard.

Mortgagees enjoy the lowest interest rates since the lows of the GFC, avoiding thousands of dollars a year in interest payments. Self-funded retirees who depend heavily on interest bearing investments for income complain a little, but there are not many of them; most have investments and property.

But ask the people how they are doing, and they say they are doing it tough.

Yet they live in a vibrant economy, where CPI data tell us that while petrol and power prices are up, food and supermarket prices are falling. Even where some costs have risen because of putting a price on carbon, households have been more than compensated. But ask the people about prices and they vow they are getting higher and higher, despite evidence to the contrary. It is embedded in their psyche that ‘they are doing it tough’.

Facts and reasoning, even commonsense, are replaced by the feeling that things are crook.

With such an economy, the Gillard Government ought to be miles ahead in the polls and be rated as good economic managers, but not only is the Coalition well ahead, polls show that it is consistently rated as the better manager of the economy. It defies logic.

But it does demonstrate the principle that how people feel is more important than what they think. Facts are irrelevant if there is an entrenched feeling to the contrary.

How has the Abbott way achieved this outcome?

It’s been easy. No matter how laudably the Government has been managing the economy, no matter how well Treasurer Swan is regarded in international circles, the tactic has been simply to tell everyone that the economy is tanking, that Labor never could manage money, that it is addicted to spending and debt, that it will never bring in a surplus budget, that it is creating sovereign risk, that its recent superannuation changes were 'shades of Cyprus', and that now even its coveted triple A ratings are under threat, then add that the Coalition knows how to run an economy, has done it before during the golden Howard years, and can do it again. Never mind that the economic circumstances of the Howard era and the current Labor era are radically different. People won’t even think about that if it’s not mentioned.

Which brings us to the second set of Abbott principles:

Truth is irrelevant in politics, but plausibility is not.
No matter how far from the truth, if a statement is convincing, and especially if it matches preconceived prejudices, it will be believed.
Remember Goebbels’ dictums: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” and “The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.”

The Coalition has applied these principles to its great advantage. It has created an atmosphere of distrust, even despair about the economy among consumers and businesses, and they have swallowed the gloom holus bolus. When the gloom has been challenged with the facts of a buoyant economy, it has been easy to contradict it by endlessly repeating that people are doing it tough, and exemplifying this with news stories about disgruntled families struggling to pay their mortgages and their household bills, especially power bills. It doesn’t matter if some of these families are earning $150,000 plus. With kids at private schools, a second car in the garage, and a large mortgage to pay off their McMansion; they really feel life is tough. These stories are intended to anger those who see themselves in a similar position, and to muster sympathy from those who aspire to such a position. The next step is to convince them and everyone else that it’s the Government’s fault and that they would be better off with competent managers in power – the Coalition of course.

The Coalition has been tactically clever in promoting this ‘ain’t it awful’ mindset, because it has made it difficult for the Government to counter by telling people that they are doing just fine. So Labor too has joined the ‘doing it tough’ chorus. In fact, only a few weeks back Joel Fitzgibbon said the people working the mines in his electorate on $140,000 a year were doing it tough, and a constituent on $250,000 was ‘struggling’. No amount of reminding these people about how good the economic figures are makes any difference – they remain convinced they are struggling and resent anyone telling them otherwise. So all the Coalition has to do is to repeat the ‘doing it tough’ message over and again.

Which takes us to a third set of Abbott principles:

Repetition is essential.
Never let up on sending your message, no matter how bored some may become. It might look like brainwashing, but it works.
Keep the message simple.
Ensure the message is memorable.

The Coalition has specialized in short sharp messages – opponents call them slogans. It doesn't care, so long as they stick. The message does not have to be true, or even logical, so long as it is believable and catchy.

Take the 2010 election catchphrases: ‘End the waste’, ‘Pay back the debt’, ‘Stop the big new taxes’, ‘Stop the boats’ and ‘Help struggling families’. Remember how easy it was to have the public embrace them. Who wouldn’t want an end to waste? There was no need to advance evidence of waste as already this had been done with the adverse publicity over the HIP and the BER. Who would object to paying back the debt? There was no need to show how the Coalition would do that, or even whether it might be a prudent thing to do at that time. Who would disagree with stopping big new taxes? Explaining what that meant was unnecessary as the carbon tax, vivid in everyone’s mind, was painted as ‘a great big new tax on everything’. All except a handful wanted the boats stopped to avert the risk of drowning. There was no need to say how the Coalition would do this, and at what cost. And the motherhood statement ‘Help struggling families’ was a no brainer. What fool would contradict that? How the Coalition would do this did not need to be spelt out; implicitly the catchphrase assumed it could and would.

Despite the brevity and lack of detail in these slogans, they worked a treat, because they were catchy, easily recalled and plausible, albeit superficially.

More recently, in the pursuit of a more positive image, the Coalition has used another catchphrase in its booklet: Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians to portray its ‘plan for the future’. Note how clever this is. ‘Real’ appeals, as does ‘solutions’! People want solutions and if they are ‘real’ what more could they ask? The fact that these words are meaningless without substance matters little. Solutions for what? How do solutions become ‘real?’ Can solutions be ‘unreal’? The meaning of the catchphrase is irrelevant so long as it sounds attractive and plausible. Substance is unnecessary. How many will read the booklet? The title is left to create the desired positive image, and it probably will.

Which segues into the fourth set of Abbott principles:

Use the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach – words can mean whatever you want them to mean.
If anyone challenges what meaning has been given to a word, simply say that that is not its meaning.
If anyone confronts you with a damaging statement a Coalition member or staffer has made, first deny it. If the chatter persists, insist that what was said was misinterpreted. If it continues, brush it away as ‘past history’, insist that action has been taken, and that ‘the matter is now at an end’.

For example, when the Coalition's Paid Parental Leave scheme was announced, the words ‘fair dinkum’ were used to describe it. Aussies like things to be ‘fair dinkum’; it’s a bit like ‘real solutions’. The words also had the effect of diminishing the value of Labor’s scheme; by definition it could not be as ‘fair dinkum’. To pay for it, a 1.5% ‘levy’ would be imposed on around three thousand companies with the largest profit. Everyone knew that would be portrayed as a ‘tax’, but it was easy to insist that it was a ‘levy’ and a ‘modest levy’ at that, and it would be offset by a similar reduction in company tax. The Coalition insists it is still a levy, and definitely not a tax. See how easy it is to make words mean whatever you want them to mean.

Another example is the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan to combat climate change. Note ‘action’ is a key word, one voters like, and this time it is ‘direct’, which of course makes it ‘real’. It has been easy to conceal from most voters the fact that the DAP will impose a burden of $1,300 on every household and cost taxpayers many billions every year, will require many new regulations and hundreds of new bureaucrats to enforce them, will rely on the creation of a 15,000 strong Green Army to plant 20 million trees on what semi-arable land can be procured, and on burying tonnes of biochar in farmland. By using the term ‘Direct Action Plan’ – three stylish and comfortable words – the Coalition has been able to deflect attention from details that some voters might find discomforting, and from all the negative appraisals of the Plan by economists and environmentalists, leaving them with just those reassuring words that have given the Plan a comfortable aura, words that would have made even Humpty Dumpty proud.

On the principle of brushing off damaging statements, the Coalition has managed to do that remarkably effectively over ‘Ashbygate’, and the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ outburst.

This leads to the next set of Abbott principles:

To achieve any of the above, a compliant media is required.
The mainstream media in this country is the conduit for convincing the people of the veracity of what the Coalition says.
The value of having media proprietors onside is inestimable.
Be prepared to do whatever it takes to get them onside.
Foster support from the wealthy and powerful as they have influence over the media.

This has been a Coalition success story. The Murdoch media has shown its willingness to not just support the Coalition, but oppose the Government. The Coalition could not have asked for an easier ride from the MSM. The Australian and the Murdoch tabloids have been strongly supportive and ready to put the Government down at every opportunity. News Limited’s Newspoll has been used not just as a measure of support for the parties, but the results have been written up in a way that no matter what the figures show, Labor has been shown up at a disadvantage. Rupert Murdoch gave an early indication that he wanted the Gillard Government gone, and he has been true to his word. Let’s face it, the Coalition could not have been in the favourable position it is in without the help of the Murdoch media, and now with its good friend Gina Rinehart a big shareholder at Fairfax, another large media outlet is onside.

The ABC was hard on Abbott in the Leigh Sales interview about the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam deferral, but her latest interview was a soft one, no doubt the result of lots of angry protests filed by Coalition supporters against the earlier one. It was easy to avoid her questions and control the interview. The ABC too looks like coming on board.

This leads to the fifth set of Abbott principles:

It is not enough to counter your opponent’s policies; you have to counter your opponent.
Demonization of opponents, particularly leaders, is essential. It is a form of ‘shooting the messenger’.
Demonization can be achieved by accusing an opponent of some misdemeanour, over and again, no matter how remote in time.
The misdemeanour need not be of any consequence, as the object is simply to raise doubts in voters’ minds about the integrity of your opponent.
Labelling an opponent pejoratively is a sure fire method, as no matter how improbable the accusation, some of it will stick.
If a theme of malfeasance or incompetence can be established, so much the better, as each instance reinforces the others.
Even if a Coalition member is guilty of the same misdemeanour, laying it on an opponent is the best counter. For example, if you tell lies yourself, accuse your opponent of lying.
Even if journalists contradict your assertions, even if they question their validity, always insist that you are correct. Never retreat. Repeat them again and again as if you haven’t heard the contradiction.
Making the electorate angry with your opponent is essential; it is vital to build up resentment and an aura of blame, so that no matter what good things your opponent does, they will be negated by the antagonism, anger and hatred that you have generated against your opponent.
It is essential to have allies in the media before engaging these strategies.

The Coalition has been successful in employing these principles.

Julia Gillard has been demonised as a liar, and labelled untrustworthy. The Coalition was gifted with her statement about not introducing a carbon tax. We know that only half of what she actually said has been circulated, but that matters nothing. The Coalition has many video clips of her saying these words that it will use over and again in election advertising, painting her as an untrustworthy liar. No amount of logic or reasoning will erase that. It is a sure winner. And hasn’t the rehashing of the Slater and Gordon matter been effective in casting doubts on her integrity!

She and her Government have been labelled as incompetent on the grounds that she has changed her position on some issues, and has not been able to bring off some of her changes. Moreover, her Government has been repeatedly labelled as dysfunctional, disunited, illegitimate, ‘a rabble’, the worst government in the nation’s history, worse that Whitlam’s, and ‘a bad government getting worse’. This has steadily eroded confidence in the Government and Julia Gillard. It has been one of the Coalition’s most effective strategies.

Journalists do sometimes challenge the use of words, for example, the use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seekers. Although strictly speaking that is correct, it strengthens the antipathy to boat people if the word is used. Those who are antagonistic to them don’t care that it is legal to seek asylum. What they want is reinforcement of their existing prejudices.

This brings us to a sixth set of Abbott principles, which are about policies and the media:

Policy statements are unimportant almost until election-day, as an excuse for not making them can always be found, and the Government blamed for their absence.
The longer policy announcements and costings can be delayed the better. Keep the electorate guessing. Be a ‘small target’.
It is much more important to have a strong media unit than a policy unit.
A media unit sets up the leader and shadow ministers with the message for the day.
Simple messages, consistently delivered, are essential.
It doesn’t matter if the message is simplistic or at times incorrect or even inane, so long as it is delivered accurately, consistently and repeatedly.
Remember, most of the electorate is not analytical.
Messages must be plausible and memorable even if they don’t make a lot of sense.
Soft media interviews with complaint journalists are to be preferred.
‘Doorstops’ are easier to handle and wind up.
If a question is asked that is at all threatening, answer instead a preferred question, or address a more convenient subject, one endowed with more political capital.
If questions become tough or insistent, a tried and tested routine is simply to walk away.
It is better to walk away than to go on the record with an embarrassing or inappropriate answer that can be replayed endlessly.
Lengthy, hard studio interviews with probing persistent journalists are to be avoided.
Whatever you do, avoid saying anything that might ‘frighten the horses’. That can wait until after the election.
Use 'Tea Party' style public events with lots of placards and women as a background as that appeals to the people. Try to look like a nice guy, and behave kindly to women. Try to erase past images of nastiness. Insist you can change and grow into the job.

These principles have been used for over two years now, and the Coalition has got away with them.

The repeated slogans have been a winner. Voters don’t think too deeply about them, but they do repeat them on cue, like Pavlov’s dogs. If challenged, some may reflect on their veracity, but who bothers to put them right. Very few! People prefer their prejudices to a reasoned debate. Neither do voters think too deeply about new ideas, like Abbott's ‘development of the North’ and 'more dams' thought bubbles, and as they attract little scrutiny from the media, no detail is necessary so long as the ideas sound good.

The Coalition has been successful at avoiding difficult encounters with the media, and when the going has gotten tough, walking away has been a good solution. They get criticism from a few journalists for doing this, but most go along with the strategy. What can they do anyway?

The situations Abbott avoids are Q&A, 7.30, Lateline and radio interviews with astute people such as Jon Faine. Interviews with the likes of Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, David Spears, Paul Kelly, and Peter van Onselen give the best result. They feed Dorothy Dixers, don’t come with the tough questions, and even when they try, as did van Onselen last week over the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ episode, it was left to the end and meekly retreated from in the face of a firm rebuttal.

And the 'Tea Party' events have attracted a lot of publicity.

So there it is – how to grasp prime ministership the Abbott way, how to seize it from Julia Gillard, and simply slide into The Lodge, or Kirribilli! If it seems deeply cynical, that is because it is. This is the bare-knuckle approach of the man who wants to be this nation's leader, in all its gory detail.

The Coalition is well aware of hubris and says it is not taking anything for granted, but with the polls the way they are, it looks to Abbott as if he is a shoo-in for prime ministership, so long as no one puts their foot in it in the next five months and blows his flimsy cover.

This then is the ugly Abbott way, exposed for all to see; clever and successful in parts, but ugly nonetheless.

You could almost believe it had come right out of the horse’s mouth.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Jenny Macklin, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

David Marr joins ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ chorus

The first words in the online description of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott read: “Tony Abbott is the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years, but he has never been popular. Now Australians want to know: what kind of man is he, and how would he perform as prime minister?” On last week’s Q&A Marr repeated, with his characteristic certitude, that Tony Abbott “is the most successful Opposition leader…”

Marr is an outstanding essayist and political commentator. His views cannot be carelessly dismissed. So we need to ask how he can make such an assertion. Of course, he is not the only one to do so. Many News Limited journalists have said the same thing in one way or another, from the pontifical Paul Kelly, down to the lesser lights in the Murdoch media and in the Fairfax media too.

What then constitutes success? Let’s leave politics for a moment.

For anything or anybody to be classed as a success, four elements come into play. First, the criteria for success need to be defined; second, a measurement scale needs to be constructed; third, a standard for ‘success’ on that scale needs to be established; and finally, the position occupied by the thing or the person on that scale needs to be measured and judged as having met, or not met, that standard of ‘success’. In educational endeavours, these steps are commonplace.

Let’s take a mundane example. What is a successful cricketer? The criteria of success might be the number of runs scored or wickets captured or catches taken or runs saved in bowling or fielding. For a captain, criteria might include the wisdom of decisions about batting and fielding, team structure, on-field strategy, team culture, and so on. As there is a multitude of measurement scales and expert opinion that capture the extent to which these criteria are being met, it is easy to ascertain how successful individuals are by setting their performance against these measures and the standards that cricket aficionados set.

Returning to politics, what are the criteria of success, and for the purposes of this piece, what are the criteria for success as an Opposition Leader?

It is at this basic level that disagreement begins. For people like David Marr and Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, and even lesser lights such as Graham Richardson and Graeme Morris, it seems that an essential criterion is the ability to oppose. It seems that under the Westminster system, those in opposition feel obliged to oppose. Says Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution: “It is said that England invented the phrase, 'Her Majesty's Opposition'; that it was the first government which made a criticism of administration as much a part of the polity as administration itself.”

Randolph Churchill, whom Tony Abbott quotes in his book Battlelines, said: “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose”, and “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.” This seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the Westminster system. In an interview of Margaret Thatcher by schoolchildren after her retirement, she recalled that a down side of politics for her was that no matter what she tried to do there was always opposition.

As argued in an earlier piece, Is the job of the Opposition to oppose? NO., it is NOT the job of Opposition to just oppose, but to engage in the process of governance so that the public can benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of all parliamentarians. That piece argued: "They are all paid from the public purse. Why should all of them not contribute and be accountable?"

If simple opposition is a criterion of success for an Opposition Leader, Abbott’s incessant opposition to virtually everything the Government says or does or proposes makes him ipso facto a success, because he measures high on any scale of opposition and reaches the ‘standard’ of ultra-high level opposition. However, as his trenchant opposition has not prevented the Gillard Government from passing over 480 pieces of legislation, his success in thwarting legislation is virtually zero.

But is unremitting opposition what oppositions ought to be about? Of course, where the political ideology of the opposition conflicts with that of the government of the day on a particular issue, opposition is appropriate on that issue.

But there are many instances where ideological positions do not call for opposition. There are instances of collaboration, even close cooperation. Kim Beasley supported John Howard’s initiatives over the ‘Tampa affair’, and Howard supported several Hawke-Keating reforms. In these instances, both sides joined hands in the governance of the nation. That is what I believe should happen more often. Parliamentarians insist it often does, but all we electors see is opposition, obstruction and conflict. Not all of this is ideological. Much of Abbott’s opposition is purely and simply resistance to the Government itself, a Government whose legitimacy Abbott has never accepted. He is hell bent on discrediting and eventually destroying the Gillard Government.

So my question to Marr, and to all who laud Abbott for his success as Opposition Leader, is this: “Is opposition for reasons other than the ideological legitimate, acceptable, even praiseworthy? Is the destruction of an elected government, albeit a minority one, an acceptable function of this Opposition Leader, indeed any opposition leader?” Some commentators think so. They laud Abbott for having dispatched one Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and having eroded the status of his successor, Julia Gillard. They congratulate him on how difficult he has made governance for PM Gillard and her Government. Destruction of prime ministers and governments seems to be a criterion that commentators use to judge Abbott, and they rate him a ‘success’ on that criterion. What a wooly view they have of what constitutes legitimate opposition.

Is the repeated use of Question Time to berate the PM, her ministers and the Government a criterion of a good opposition? Is the asking of a tiny array of questions over and again (on carbon tax, minerals tax, budget surplus, asylum seekers) a criterion of a good opposition? Is it good opposition to scarcely ever ask a question about whole areas of government, Trade and Health being two examples? Is it good opposition on over sixty occasions to move the suspension of standing orders to castigate the Government, always unsuccessfully, thereby wasting hundreds of hours of parliamentary time and foregoing countless questions that could have been used to ‘hold the Government to account’, a rightful function for an opposition. Should opposition leaders be judged on the extent to which they use parliamentary time well or poorly? Does Marr consider Abbott should be measured and judged for such behaviour? If so, how does he rate him? Does Marr regard that behaviour as contributing to what he describes as Abbott’s ‘success’?

Does Marr consider contribution to the effective governance of the nation from opposition a rightful function? If so, how does he rate Abbott on that criterion? Does Abbott reach a standard that could be classed as ‘successful’? I doubt it. Marr’s criteria for success seem largely restricted to opposition and destructiveness.

What about parliamentary language and behaviour? Should opposition leaders be judged on how they conduct themselves in this the highest political forum in the nation? Should they be judged on their aggressiveness, the vituperativeness of their language? Did Marr rate Abbott’s ‘died of shame’ reference; did he rate his abusive demeanour and his offensive language directed to our PM? If he did, why does he still rate Abbott as “the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years?

What about the criteria of honesty and integrity? Are these applicable to opposition leaders, to this Opposition Leader? If they are, how would Marr rate Abbott? Would he rate him as ‘successful’ on those counts?

How would Marr rate Abbott’s performance in interacting with the media? How would he judge Abbott’s avoidance of hard interviews, his predilection for ‘soft’ interviews by his favourite shock jocks, his poor performance when nailed down by insistent interviewers, the lies he has told on many occasions, and his obfuscation and deviousness in answering pointed questions? Is this part of Abbott’s ‘success’?

How do Abbott’s gimmicks rate: fish kissing, butchering, banana stacking, supermarket trawling, truck driving, ‘fire fighting’, bicycle pedaling, surfing, appearing with wife and daughters? Does Marr rate these as a factor in his success?

What about the criteria of messaging and consistency of message? On those, Abbott would score well. He and his staff have manufactured a set of catchy and memorable slogans that he repeats endlessly. We know them all by heart. The fact that they are crass, comprising as they do distortions of the truth or simplistic statements of aspiration without substance is of no concern to Abbott or the Coalition, so long as they stick in people’s minds, so long as they effectively discredit the Government, and advantage the Coalition.

Does Marr, and those who vest Abbott with ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ garland, do so because of these slogans, slogans that have been so mindlessly embraced by the unthinking that they have become part of the political lexicon? If so, is that something we ought to expect of a successful opposition leader? Is skill at conjuring and confidence trickery a laudable attribute for opposition leaders? Perhaps Marr gives Abbott credit for the discipline he has shown in staying on message.

How would Marr judge Abbott’s performance at rallies berating the carbon tax and the minerals tax, appearing in front of banners worded: ‘Juliar’, ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’? More Abbott success?

Does Abbott earn Marr’s mantle because of the depth of his vision for the nation, the richness and variety of his policy offerings, the cohesion and persuasiveness of his policies, the accuracy of his policy costings, and the verve and consistency with which he pursues them? Hardly. Even when Abbott does come out with a policy, it looks paltry – his NBN-lite and his Direct Action Plan to combat global warming are examples. Marr is not without insight. Perhaps he regards Abbott’s ability to keep his policies and costings largely under wraps as a measure of success.

In extolling Abbott success, Marr asserts that he is “turning a rabble into a government in four years.” If holding his party together and having it adhere to the party line are suitable criteria, Abbott has done well. There have been outbreaks of dissonance by Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella and Cory Bernardi, and most recently intemperate language by staffer Mark Roberts, but by and large Abbott has kept his troops under control. If this is a criterion of success for an opposition leader, let’s give him a modest tick for that.

What about poll ratings? Since commentators and politicians alike dwell on poll results and give credence to them, Abbott could be judged a ‘success’ if elevating the Coalition in the polls is a criterion, although he has been less successful in elevating his own level of popularity. How much weight has Marr given to polling? A lot, it would seem.

Let’s add up the sums. Using the criteria outlined above, how many successes has Abbott had, successes that would warrant ‘the most successful opposition leader’ mantle, and how many failures?

Opposition to virtually everything the Government has done: A SUCCESS for some; a FAIL for many.

Contribution to effective governance: A FAIL by any account.

Damage to the Government and its leaders: A big SUCCESS for those who want to bring the Government down; a heavy FAIL for those who deplore such intent.

Prudent use of parliamentary time and resources: A FAIL by all accounts.

Parliamentary language and behaviour: A FAIL for all except his rusted on supporters.

Honesty and integrity: The evidence points to a big FAIL.

Interacting with the media: His minders would probably classify him as a SUCCESS; many observers would give him a FAIL.

Messaging and consistency of messages: His messages (crass and deceptive though his slogans might be) have met with SUCCESS, and his consistency has been a SUCCESS.

Use of gimmicks, publicity stunts and rally appearances: A SUCCESS for inventiveness, a FAIL for boorishness, tackiness and tastelessness.

Depth of vision, sound policies and costings: A very big FAIL by any assessment.

Keeping his party together and on message: A qualified SUCCESS.

Improving the Coalition’s position in the opinion polls: A big SUCCESS.

So there is my assessment of Abbott’s successes and failures. Of course such evaluation depends on the criteria selected, where Abbott is measured to be on the scale, and whether he has reached the set ‘standard’. Some judgements are subjective; others objective to some degree.

David Marr’s overall assessment of Tony Abbott, the pretender to prime ministership, is one of success. This piece explores what criteria he might have been using, challenges his attribution of ‘success’ to some criteria that I consider dubious or untenable, and ends with a challenge to him: “Detail your criteria to us, tell us how you measured Abbott against them, and then explain how your assessment of him against those criteria warrants the garland ‘the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years’.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Cory Bernardi, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Michaelia Cash, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Warren Truss, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong, and Nick Xenophon.

Policy making through the rear-view mirror

“We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror” was one of the many notable aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher, futurist, and communications theorist of the sixties.

If ever there was an image that captures Tony Abbott’s approach to public policy, this is it: driving into the future using only the rear-view mirror.

In full, McLuhan’s maxim reads: “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” His argument was that our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand.

On a contemporary note, take Tony Abbott’s approach to broadband, the lifeblood of more and more involved in commerce and industry, in education, health, agriculture, tourism, and in the tech-intensive and service industries. His initial approach was typical of his pugilistic nature. “Demolish the NBN” was his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull. It was a Labor initiative and therefore must be destroyed. Moreover, he knew that if the NBN were stillborn, Rupert Murdoch would be pleased, as that would eliminate a competitor to his TV empire.

Abbott failed. As Turnbull sipped from this poisoned chalice, all the more bitter because it demanded he act contrary to his tech-savvy nature, he realized that demolition was going to be difficult, and in the end impossible, and unwise, as the Government’s NBN unfolded. Whether it was Turnbull’s awareness of the logistic and legal difficulties, or whether he became aware of the growing public support for the NBN, or whether his love of communications technology overcame him, he decided he must dissuade Abbott from his pursuit of demolition. That move carried the political risk of Abbott being seen as doing a ‘backflip’, having repeatedly condemned the Government’s NBN as an obscenely expensive white elephant that the nation could not afford. Of course, Abbott doesn’t do backflips; he changes his mind – ask the media.

Last week we witnessed an unanticipated spectacle – Abbott and Turnbull launching an NBN, the Coalition’s NBN, but an NBN nonetheless. Set against a high-tech background, courtesy of the new Fox Sports Sydney headquarters complete with a hologram image of a footballer, Turnbull and Abbott, looking like snake oil salesmen, with Abbott looking out of his depth at that, launched a cheap, low-tech alternative – dubbed ‘NBN-lite’.

Because it has been done to death elsewhere, even in the mainstream media, it is not my purpose here to compare this and the Government’s NBN, except to underscore the patently obvious fact that NBN-lite is not just inferior, but portrays Abbott’s proclivity to plan for the future by looking in his rear-view mirror, to march backwards into the future.

There was a delectable take on the launch in Brisbane Times Free floppies a policy flop by John Birmingham that makes my point: “The Opposition Leader promised this week that every Australian household would receive a free floppy disk drive and monochrome monitor under an Abbott-led government. Launching the Coalition’s long awaited response to the government’s National Broadband Network program, Mr Abbott denied that providing a floppy drive and monitor without the computing box to plug them into would leave Australian households with a second best solution… If people want more they can easily spend a few thousand dollars to upgrade to a very fast 386 or even 486 computing box.”

That is closer to the truth than its satirical tone suggests. From the outset Abbott claimed that Australia’s existing broadband was fine for him to send emails and for his daughters to download movies. His implicit question was “What more do you need? He was looking in the rear-view mirror to gaze into the future. Commenting on the NBN, even journalists who might usually support Abbott’s position have characterized him as lacking vision. That is not correct. Abbott has vision all right: backward vision.

His broadband vision is restricted to email and movies. He says he ‘needs it for his work’, but has he thought about the almost unbelievable potential of super fast broadband? Has he contemplated the possibility that in the years ahead applications will emerge that have not even been thought about yet? Does he remember that when he was a boy the first mobile phone was invented – the size of a brick and weighing a kilogram – and that since then we have seen the emergence of the extraordinary technology we now have? Has he forgotten that the World Wide Web began only a little over 20 years ago? Has he even thought about the next twenty years and the demands that burgeoning applications will place on the WWW? It seems not. Does he really think the Internet will be the same twenty years from now? Whatever he thinks, he tells us that his NBN-lite is ‘good enough’ for us: "I am confident that it gives Australians what they need." Regrettably, we will never know what he thinks about the future while he looks nostalgically into his rear-view mirror and sees only the past.

Looking backwards is Abbott man’s greatest drawback as a politician and leader.

It’s not just about broadband that Abbott looks back, not forward. How many times have you heard him lament that the halcyon days of John Howard are behind us. How he would love to return to that golden era where mining revenue flowed in a torrent into Howard’s coffers, enabling Howard and Peter Costello to hand out middle class welfare and give tax breaks, especially to those on the highest salaries and superannuation, and still bring in their hallowed surplus budgets. There was no global financial crisis, no recession; there was no dire threat to our economy as they prepared their budgets, no impediment to them handing out electoral bribes come election time. Abbott yearns for those days, and berates Labor because they have not done what Howard did.

Abbott looks in his rear-view mirror, sees the Howard years, sees the ideal fiscal circumstances he enjoyed, ignores all that has occurred globally since 2007 as if it had never happened, castigates the Government for taking the actions it did to protect the economy and employment during the GFC, and pretends that had the Coalition been in power everything would have been better, with surplus budgets as usual. Abbott’s capacity to fix his gaze on the rear-view mirror and look back at the road long past travelled, his faculty to ignore the road ahead, is pathological.

And it goes on. Looking back a usual, Abbott fondly remembers the days of high demand and sky-high prices for coal and iron ore and the revenue that resulted. He still refuses to see how the scene has changed, refuses to acknowledge that as a result Government revenue has fallen by $160 billion, and that the anticipated surplus is no longer possible. His rear mirror view shows him that nothing has changed, demand and prices are as they were, and not delivering a surplus is just ‘another broken promise’.

Of all the rear mirror views Abbott relishes, one of the most cherished is the spectre of how WorkChoices brought the workforce into line, and dampened union power. He also catches sight of how damaging that restrictive and unfair policy proved to be for the Howard Government and reflects on how it was a major factor in its defeat in 2007. He is petrified at giving any hint of its return, declaring it ‘dead, buried and cremated’. But his longing continues for the ‘flexibility’ business demands. Abbott’s IR spokesman, Eric Abetz, is using language that hints strongly at Abbott’s intention. He keeps looking back, pining for those ‘good old days’. But with an election pending, looking forward to reintroducing IR changes is too fraught.

How many times have you heard him insist that returning to Howard’s magic three-legged formula for stopping the boats: offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, temporary protection visas, and turning the boats around ‘when safe to do so’, would work again just as it did then? By looking in his rear-view mirror, he is able to ignore all the changes around the world in the refugee situation, ignore all the push factors that now operate, and lay blame for the influx of arrivals on pull factors, to Labor’s leniency, to their abandonment of TPVs that the evidence showed were not just ineffective but harmful, and to their refusal to turn boats around, a maritime manoeuvre that is hazardous to service personnel as well as the boat people, one that is considered disaster-prone by senior Naval personnel, and was actually seldom done in the Howard era. Looking into his rear-view mirror Abbott sees the Howard program as ‘the answer’, the only answer: “we did it before and we will do it again”. He yearns for a return to those ‘days of yore’ when the refugee population in detention was tiny.

Take global warming. Despite his affirmation that he believes it really is occurring and that human activity is partly responsible, with his negative behaviour towards measures to reduce pollution by putting a price on carbon, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he still believes that ‘climate change is crap’, that it was ‘hotter in Jesus’ time’, and that therefore radical action is unnecessary. He still believes that planting 20 million trees and paying polluters to stop polluting will do. Again he’s looking into his rear-view mirror at climate in the long past, at the time when Dorothea Mackellar wrote of ‘droughts and flooding rains’, ignoring the constellation of severe adverse weather events that have occurred recently around the world, events that climate scientists attribute to global warming. He is able to ignore the almost universal consensus of thousands of climate scientists that global warming is real, is upon us already, will steadily escalate, and will bring with it untold catastrophes.

Looking in his rear-view mirror, he sees a world that existed before emissions trading schemes began. He still believes, indeed insists that Australia is running ahead of the world, that the trading schemes and pollution abatement programs that abound all around the world, and are proliferating every month, scarcely exist. He can’t see the evidence that is before his eyes, so fixed is he on the past. He repeats his mantra that the rest of the world is lagging behind us in emissions trading, when clearly it is not. His rear-view mirror looks back a long way.

The same mirror reflects back to him the traditional values he embraces so lovingly. During his address at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner last week, Abbott said this: “Alas, there is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.” Nobody would deny Abbott his beliefs and his values, ones refreshed by looking in his rear-view mirror, but those who are inclined to vote for him should ponder to what extent he will allow those entrenched values and beliefs to intrude on his policy making, to influence him as he fashions policies that ought to benefit all Australians. To what extent is he prepared to look forward, to see changing community attitudes to, for example, abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia? To what extent is he prepared to change his long-established viewpoint?

But his value system extends well beyond these emotion-laden issues. Looking back longingly to the Howard era he cherishes Howard’s values: support for private schools to the detriment of public schools that Howard neglected; support for private hospitals and private health insurance even if that disadvantages public hospitals; endorsement of the user pays principle, even if that leaves some behind; support for the privatization of public assets; sustenance of the powerful and the wealthy (Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart spring to mind), even if that means that trickle down economics continues to fail and the gap between the rich and the poor widens.

Indeed, voters need not only to know Abbott’s contemporary attitude to these issues, but to what extent he embraces the Institute of Public Affairs’ list of 75 radical policy changes it is recommending to him and the Coalition? Take a big breath, and read them here. This is what Abbott said about them during his IPA address: “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big “yes” to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me…! Read YaThink’s response to that.

Abbott is a traditionalist, a monarchist, a Catholic imbued with Jesuit beliefs, and ultra-conservative that hankers for long gone days, days that he gazes at through his rear-view mirror. Even his recently expressed ideas for development of the North, which some rank as ‘visionary’, are a reprise of ideas from the last century, ideas advanced by Ion Idriess seventy years ago.

Look at the people behind Abbott, and you look at relics from the past. Yet he vows to install this team unchanged should he win power. He looks in his rear-view mirror and sees his future ministers.

Abbott longs for the past; he is fearful of any future that threatens his conventional, conformist view of the world. He eschews looking forward; the past is too comfortable and reassuring to abandon.

Yet, this man wants to be the leader of this nation in this unprecedented time of change as it faces the Asian Century, as it faces unparalleled challenges both in its own economic base, and in the global economy. The turmoil ahead demands that our nation’s leader look forward at the evolving landscape and steer our country along a course of prosperity, in harmony with our neighbours and our trading partners, in tune with the evolving geopolitical situation we hear about every day of our lives, and able to align our country with the powers that can give us support and protection and enhance our own defences – a leader who is willing and able to fruitfully adapt to the dynamically evolving world around us.

Tony Abbott, a man whose eyes are fixed on his rear-view mirror, who seems unable see the road ahead, is not that leader.

What do you think?

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